From the archive
It’s hard to imagine this pitch going over well at, say, Activision or EA headquarters:
I’ll construct a really punishing computer game, with dreadful graphics and no goals or story whatsoever. Players will spend most of their time making stuff out of other stuff they find and trying not to die. I’ll release a buggy alpha version early on, let players fiddle around with it for free online, and make millions off of [euro]10 downloads while still developing the game.
So much the worse for Activision or EA, then: Swedish game developer Markus Persson, better known as Notch, has singlehandedly accomplished exactly that this past year. His strange sandbox-construction game, Minecraft, has gone completely viral, with over 1.25 million registered accounts and sales around $100,000 per day since early September; he’s now building a company and hiring a team to bring the game to completion.
The basic mechanics of Minecraft are simple. You appear as a roughly rectangular person in the midst of a randomly generated environment, populated by trees, mountains, lakes, and peaceful animals. Everything in the world is composed of cubic blocks, and anything you see can be collected by breaking it apart — first with punches, and later with tools that you craft. The most useful resources are ores found in deep underground caves, but wherever there is darkness, there are monsters. As the pixelated sun sets at the end of your first day in Minecraft, you must scramble to dig yourself into a shelter of some kind, lest roving hordes of zombies, skeletons, and other creatures find you.
The game provides no story and has no overriding goals; you can spend your time collecting materials, fighting monsters, building ridiculous things, or exploring the endless landscape, generating new terrain wherever you go (Notch calculates the maximum size of Minecraft’s map at eight times the surface area of Earth). It’s disorienting at first to be playing a fundamentally aimless game, but Minecraft — a.k.a. “Minecrack” — turns out to have a peculiarly seductive appeal. After playing it for a couple of weeks, I have some ideas about why that might be.
Minecraft’s physics are, in a way, exceptionally advanced. Thus far, the contents of pretty much every environment in a video game have been divided between objects in the foreground — significant people and items with which one can have certain limited interactions — and those in the background — walls, furniture, trees, and other static pieces that are inert and often impassible. Nowadays, you can pick up and toss around foreground objects in Half-Life 2, or kill an enemy in Halo: Reach by blasting a heavy box into him. But, by and large, the improvement in realism since Super Mario Bros. has been incremental: the foreground-background model persists. Minecraft, conversely, approaches game physics from the bottom up: even though the atom of its world is a cubic-meter-sized block, and even though the laws governing those blocks are rudimentary, they’re applied consistently — and that makes the world feel astonishingly unartificial. The unintended consequences that can arise out of its law-governed interactions create some of the game’s most precious moments: the reason a guy burning down his own house by mistake is so hilarious is because it was a lifelike, unexpected result of the world’s physics chugging along as they’re supposed to, treating the walls and ceilings of the house just the same way they treat the log in the fireplace.
What impresses me the most about Minecraft, though, is that it takes this use of determining laws even further than most games: not only is the world governed by a simple set of natural laws rather than by the whims of people, it’s designed by such laws as well. When you break through into a new cave or reach the top of a new peak, you are exploring territory that human eyes have never seen before. You have no idea as you dig underground if you will find a many-chambered treasure trove of valuable ores, underground rivers, lava floes, and terrifying monsters, or a dreary little patch of coal in a wall. The overwhelmingly common standard in video games has always been the creation of carefully curated environments, through which the designers guide the player along a more or less linear path (one bolstered ever-more frequently nowadays by waypoints and arrows that lead you by the nose to the next encounter). In most RPGs, for example, you can generally guarantee that avoiding the main path in favour of a less obvious one will lead you to some sort of hidden treasure — the player constantly (and, almost always, easily) second-guesses the intents and expectations of the designers. In Minecraft, as in nature, it’s impossible to do so, and so the surprise and delight of finding a rare formation or valued resource feels genuine. By the same token, when you encounter a roomful of enemies you have cause for real fear, as there are no assurances that you’ll be able to handle them — they were put there by chance, not by someone calibrating a series of challenges to an appropriate difficulty.