HOW A SINGLE-DEVELOPER INDIE GAME BECAME ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL GAMES OF THE YEAR.
You begin all alone on a deserted island. You explore. You collect wood and stone and sand. You make simple tools. You build yourself a shelter. Later, you hunt pigs and gather fruit for food. And fight off monsters in the dark.
And it’s all made up of cubeshaped blocks. Yes, even the pigs.
It’s really hard to describe Minecraft. Lego with monsters. Lego Robinsin Crusoe. Doom with blocks and without guns and with farming. See what I mean? Hard.
But, impossibly, this indie game created by a single developer has been downloaded 14 million times, and has grossed over 30 million dollars within weeks of its release. That’s more than many AAA titles make over their lifetimes. It has made its creator Markus Persson (a.k.a. Notch) very wealthy, and his studio Mojang one of gaming’s hottest properties. What makes Minecraft so special? While it may be hard to describe the game, it is easier to describe the Minecraft experience. Which is where I’ll start.
You begin all alone on a deserted island. The entire island is made out of cubes—mud, grass, stone, coal, sand, water, even the clouds and the sun are made out of Legolike cubes. It’s beautiful in a surreal sort of way.
And here’s the thing—you can dig, chop and cut through the entire landscape, one cube at a time, and gather the resources it offers. Dig up a mud cube and you get some mud. Chop a tree and you get wood. Cut through stone with a pickaxe and you get some stone.
You can then use these materials, block by block, to build stuff of your own. Homes, bridges, walls, towers, sheep cannons—almost anything you can imagine spring up as you painstakingly create a world around you to survive the elements. And the monsters that come out at night. Yes, I’m telling the truth you about the sheep cannons.
It’s a magical experience as you reshape the world around you—carving out valleys, trenches and caverns, levelling mountains and raising platforms, building structures, walls, staircases and other things of beauty. It’s a fundamental human instinct to enjoy seeing order emerging from chaos—and Minecraft taps into this quite beautifully. When you finish putting the final touches on your first log cabin, beautifully lit with torches, decorated with a bed and bookcases and windows, and step back to take a look, it’s a feeling of pride and ownership that is rivalled by few games indeed.
Now, it’s time to kill the monsters. Yep, Minecraft has all sorts of nasties that pop out at nights trying to kill you. But you’ll be ready
for them. You can mine iron ore from the depths of dark caverns and forge them into powerful armour and swords. You can kill spiders, take their webs and use them as bowstrings in wooden bows. And you can kill them skeletons, zombies and creepers good.
Minecraft is one of gaming’s greatest sandboxes. It’s an amazing and compelling experience just exploring, crafting and building things in this world. Players have taken it upon themselves to push the limits of the construction tools of Minecraft— people have build epic structures such as full- scale models of Hogwarts, The Reichstag and even the USS Enterprise. Players have created custom texture packs that make Minecraft look like Animal Crossing, Halo and Fallout. People are beginning to invent their own games using Minecraft’s physics engine. Yes, some of them involve sheep cannons that can launch our woolly friends towards the moon.
Minecraft’s blocky, retro-legochic (aided by some imaginative sound design) also adds immeasurably to the experience. Somehow, the relatively abstract aesthetic lets our imaginations take over and fill in the blanks—resulting in a world that’s as realistic, beautiful, idyllic, daunting or terrifying as we imagine it to be. Minecraft avoids the classic trap of falling into the uncanny valley by steering very wide of it. It’s a great immersion win.
The success of Minecraft is being replicated by other games as well. Minecraft clones are spreading like wildfire, each one of them bringing something new to the core gameplay and enjoying great success. Terraria, a 2D interpretation of the Minecraft mechanics with some Castlevania- style platforming thrown in, was the top-selling game on steam during the week of its release, outselling titles like The Witcher 2 and Portal 2. FortressCraft, another Minecraft- alike on Xbox Live Arcade, became the highest grossing Indie game of all time on Microsoft’s platform.
The incredible success of the genre can perhaps be explained by the fact that people simply love putting things together and pulling them apart. That’s why kids love Lego—it lets us play with it any way we choose. Look, I made a gun! Hey! I made a monster! Woot, I made a castle! It is as realistic or as abstract as we’d like it to be.
Minecraft is an important game— another in the list of illustrious games that are more about creation than destruction. It proves, yet again, that games that let people express themselves and exercise their imaginations work well and enjoy great success. It’s another milestone in gaming’s evolving history—creating a genre and entertaining millions of happy, happy players.