As a games lecturer I have a sure-fire way to gauge the popularity of a new release: the attendance register. Interesting correlations occur when you cross-reference student absence with game release dates. Out of a class of 20 – five away on November 21st, the release of Black Ops. Just two absent on November 24th for Gran Turisimo 5 – not bad for a PS3 exclusive. APB‘s launch day – oh dear, full class.
These flurries of excitement tend to be short lived. A couple of days after release even the biggest games are largely forgotten and students creep back in with shamefaced stories of impromptu weddings and fast healing appendectomies. This year there’s been one exception – Minecraft. No game has caused more late nights, asleep-on-keyboard embarrassments, and impassioned off-topic debates – and that’s just the teachers.
If you haven’t played Minecraft yet, you’re missing out. The game comes in two flavours. The free classic version is essentially a giant world (eight times the surface area of the Earth) made of metre-square blocks players can create or destroy to create fantastic environments. The commercial alpha version uses a similar building mechanic, but blocks are limited. Building new objects involves mining for raw materials which can be combined – called ‘crafting’ – to create new blocks, weapons, tools, even vehicles and mechanisms.
Like the free sandbox mode, there are no clear goals, so your gameplay possibilities remain very broad. The one nod towards traditional game narrative is the day-night cycle. When the sun goes down, zombies, and ‘creepers’ appear and do their best to take you down. To guard against them, your days are spent building fortifications in order to survive the nights. This game mode is called quite appropriately, ‘survival’.
Until recently, Minecraft had been developed by a single man. Known as Notch online, Markus Persson started work on the game in May 2009 and began accepting pre-orders for the commercial release in June 2010.
A week away from the much-anticipated beta release, he took some time out to talk to Den of Geek about the game’s success.
“I had no idea it would get this popular,” Persson admits. “While some of the online press seemed to keep an eye on the stuff I made before Minecraft, this level of publicity is very flattering.”
Popular is an understatement. Minecraft recently won three Inside Gaming Awards, is almost universally loved by critics, praised by games developers, and currently has over 2.3 million registered players. All achieved with no marketing budget while still in alpha release. We asked Persson what it is about the game that’s capturing players’ imaginations.
“I think it’s both the freedom the player gets, making it fun to both build and to watch what other people have built, and the random level generator that generates somewhat interesting levels to explore. I frequently get surprised and see something I’d never imagined. Recently, there was a video of a Minecart-based pig killing machine that automatically fetches a new pig when you kill the previous one. Very clever, and extremely funny.”
Whether it’s trying to outdo each another to build a better pig killer or offering tutorials on how to play the game, the community is an essential part of the Minecraft experience. With no gentle tutorial level to ease you in, the game itself offers little help to newcomers. I sat for many hours with Minepedia and YouTube on one monitor with Minecraft on another getting inspiration, learning crafting, and cursing as my work was destroyed by detonating creepers.
The community plays another important role. Persson follows an agile development methodology, favouring collaboration with gamers through all stages of creation with a looser and more adaptable planning process than usual. He explains how this works:
“Feedback is extremely important to learn what parts of the game people enjoy and in what general direction the player want the game to go. I try not to read individual suggestions too closely, and much prefer just really short ‘clues’ as to what could be added, as that keeps me feeling creative. It’s gotten much more difficult to keep personal contact with the players on a one-by-one basis these days. Twitter helps.
“I kind of ‘code-sketch’, where I get started with a project by actually writing the code for it and getting something up on the screen. Then I play around with it and see if it’s any fun, and change the parts that aren’t. For Minecraft, it actually started with an isometric strategy game.”
Just as the appeal of Minecraft’s gameplay is watching your worlds develop, so too is watching the game itself evolve as new updates are released. Persson has developed a cult following as players follow his Twitter feed and blog for new tweaks and additions to the game. As this is such a large part of the appeal, we wondered if it would be sensible for there to be a final, definitive version.
“There will be some version we’ll call the ‘full version’, yes,” Persson explains. “Mostly because it’s silly to keep calling a game beta forever, and we need some kind of closure as a studio. But I suspect we’ll keep adding content to the game for a long time. I’ve never had more things I want to add to the game than I do now, and the list just keeps growing.”
If following @notch on Twitter doesn’t generate enough excitement at what’s to come, you can whet your appetite with Minecraft’s public ‘to do list’ to see what’s in store for future updates. At present, the highest priority is to counter hacking. Some large game developers claim to be contemplating leaving the PC market in favour of consoles, because rampant piracy makes it difficult to turn a profit. We asked Persson what problems he faces, and where he sees the PC heading as a platform.
“By ‘thwart hacking’, I meant in-game hacking that ruins the game for other players, not stopping piracy. While there is quite a lot of piracy going on and I obviously don’t condone it, I don’t believe it’s as big of a problem as some of the large studios claim it is. PC gaming has always been strong, and I see it surviving for quite a few more years. It will be around for at least as long as people use PCs. Considering you can’t get any work done on a game console or a mobile phone, I suspect we’ve got quite a few years ahead of us.”
With so much praise lavished on the game, we were interested in what the creator is most pleased with, and what mainstream games developers might learn from Minecraft’s success.
“The lighting engine is probably the part I’m most satisfied with on a technical level. There are some issues with it at the moment, but it adds so much atmosphere to the game. I’m not at all satisfied with the half-sized blocks. They were an experimental hack from the get-go, and they’ve never worked quite right.”
“I think mainstream developers are doing a great job with their games already. There’s a certain lesson to be learned about user generated content and being able to share it. There’s a quarter of a million videos on YouTube about Minecraft, but only 150 thousand about LittleBigPlanet. Having built-in video recording capabilities for a game that focuses on user generated content might be a very good thing.”
With the exception of a few lucky beta testers, a game is usually only available to the public once finished, but Minecraft has been publicly available since the start. The commercial alpha release went on sale earlier in the year, with the promise of free updates for life. Next week, the game upgrades to beta status at a slightly higher price, but new customers will have to pay for expansion packs and extra content. As development progresses, what can we expect from the beta period?
“Before Christmas, it will just be about multiplayer updates. Next year, we’ll be adding proper modding support, more content (crafting, blocks, monsters, level content, tree types, sounds, music and so on), and a bigger focus on stability, performance and testing. Once the game is complete enough to feel like a proper game, it’ll reach release status.”
“After that, we’ll focus more on releasing content surrounding the game, and expansions with cool new features we’ll think about after release.”
Good news for fans of the game. With no sign of its popularity abating and new features being added all the time, rest assured that in 2011 you’ll be hearing a lot more about Minecraft.
Minecraft is available from www.minecraft.net. The Beta version will go live on Monday 20th December.
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