Unless you've deliberately avoided reading gaming websites and magazines over the last year (and if so, I'm flattered that you've decided to read this article as your first) you can't have escaped Minecraft. It's one of those indie games that was catapulted to sudden stardom, capturing the imagination of people all over the world - and making the creator, Notch, rich in the process. It also allowed him to turn his Mojang Productions into a fully fledged company, complete with actual employees, something that most indie game makers could only dream of doing.
Today, December 20 2010, Minecraft is going from its alpha stage into beta. To celebrate that, let's take a look at what it is that makes Minecraft such a hit and why players have taken a game that isn't even finished yet to heart in such a big way.
The concept of Minecraft is... Well, you mine stuff. You dig through earth, mine your way through rock and mountains, you even hack away at trees and - if you want to be crude about it - mine the roaming zombies and skeletons to death too. And the local fauna, like pigs and cows, if you feel like it. Of course, all of the stuff you dig up is put into your inventory which you then can use to build, well, anything. Houses, castles, skywalks, ancient Inca cities, giant phallus-shaped towers, the Star Trek Enterprise in 1:1 scale, advanced 16-bit processors...
But first, let us go back to the basics. Because if there's something that has scared away some potential players is the game's primitive graphics. In an age where companies like Epic and Crytek stumble over each other to create the most advanced graphical engine, Minecraft is built in Java with blocky and basic graphics. It's not rare to hear someone say that they don't understand why anybody would want to play it - a game about digging that's also "ugly."
That's basic shallowness speaking, because what Minecraft manages to do is embody Sony's old tagline "Play, Create, Share." It might look primitive, and if broken down into its crudest form it might mostly be about digging and building stuff using blocks. It lacks the cuteness of Little Big Planet, or the avatar building in ModNation Racers, but it also shows that a lot of players don't really care about fancy graphics or cute Sackboy-mascots - not when offered randomly generated sandbox worlds where their creativity can run free.
First of all, let's look at "play." While most of the videos posted on YouTube depict the game's sandbox mode, Minecraft actually contains a single-player game. You're thrown into a randomly generated, blocky world without any equipment, shelter or arrows pointing in which way to go. The sun is shining overhead and you're free to roam around, explore the world around you, and dig. Perhaps you figure out how to use wood to craft yourself some tools to make the digging easier. Perhaps you start building yourself a house.
Then the sun sets, and the true face of the game shows itself - it's not only about mining, or digging, or building. It's very much a game about survival. Because at night, the zombies and the skeletons come out. Giant spiders crawl out of their lairs. They care only about one thing, and that's eating you. Your house better not only be pretty, it better be functional as well since it will soon be the only safe place you have. Until a creeper catches wind of you, rushes you and explodes - if you're unlucky, taking a part of your house and you with it.
While surviving while also exploring and building is a big part of Minecraft's "play", then "create" plays just as an important role. While you can always dig yourself a crude Hobbit hole and stay out of sight of the lurking horrors above, who wants to live like that for long? And don't you want to know what is on the other side of that mountain? Minecraft in singleplayer is about creating - perhaps building that phallus-shaped tower, but also about creating your own adventure. Since the world is randomly generated, and every time you come close to its borders it spawns new areas, there is always something new to see.
Then comes the time to "share". While it might not be for everyone, players of Minecraft have been flooding YouTube with videos of their adventures - personally, I'd recommend the extremely funny Arkenors's Adventuring in Minecraft for some single-player fun (and no, not only because I'm briefly in one his videos, honest). Minecraft also comes with a server that allows for multiplayer, where you can either build together or adventure together (a health system was recently added to the server software, allowing for monsters to actually damage players). And the sandbox mode, without things that can kill you, allows you to build the most amazing things...
In its simplicity, Minecraft can be terribly addictive - even rivaling certain MMOs at times. And it should teach triple-A studios everywhere something about design. About what people can truly enjoy. While we craft our own stories in the Elder Scrolls series or Dragon Age: Origins, a lot can be said about keeping things as simple as possible while giving the player tons of freedom.
Game designers like to control their players, show them where to go and what to feel - quite similar to the way movie directors work. They want us to laugh here, they want us to cry there. In games like Minecraft, we laugh when we throw ourselves off a cliff to escape a creeper, only to realize that we fell to our death anway. Or cry when we accidentally put our fancy house on fire. Not because anyone at Mojang said so, but because we were in a free world where stuff like that just happens.
As Minecraft goes into its beta stage, and mumblings from Mojang and Notch talk about adding some form of narrative to help out budding players, I can only hope that the developers never lose sight of that. Because this is a gem already, despite its unfinished state. Let's hope that we can play, create and share our adventures in mining for a long time to come.