The Unbearable Lightness Of Minecraft
I tend to come late to popular enthusiasms, and so it has been with Minecraft. The blockbuster indie game has been out for a little more than two years and has sold more than a million copies, but I didn’t dive in until just recently. The reason was simple: from what I could see of it, I had never been able to really “get” why the game was so popular. But eventually I decided that Minecraft had become such a phenomenon that I needed to check it out regardless, so I plunked down the registration fee and gave it a whirl.
First, though, some backstory. Minecraft is a computer game originally written by a single Swedish programmer, Markus Persson, a.k.a. “Notch.” It sets you down in a randomly generated world rendered in a chunky, retro graphics style. The two things you can do in that world are right there in the name: you mine resources, and use them to craft items. (“Mining” in this case is a somewhat inaccurate term, since not all the resources you can gather are found underground; you can “mine” wood from trees and water from lakes, for example.) When you start out and don’t have a lot of resources mined, the things you can craft are fairly simple; but as you gather more resources the scale of the things you can build grows, all the way up to buildings.
And crafting buildings is important, because of the other aspect of Minecraft’s gameplay. The world you’re dropped into comes complete with a day/night cycle; as you wander around on the first day, you see the sun inching across the sky, until it dips down toward the horizon and the moon rises.
Which is bad news, because in Minecraft, night is when the monsters come out.
New players generally learn this the hard way. You’re poking around the landscape, chopping down trees and scooping up sand and earth, and then suddenly it’s night. And then you notice that the friendly cows and chickens that had dotted the landscape during the day are nowhere to be seen; in their place are new creatures that you can’t quite make out, until they get up close and you realize that they are skeletons, or zombies, or “creepers” — suicide bombers that scuttle up to you, hiss, and then blow up, taking you (and a huge chunk of landscape) with them.
Eventually, either through trial and error or by consulting the wiki, you learn how to protect yourself at night. They can’t hurt you if they can’t reach you, so you build a shelter to hide in while the monsters roam. They hate bright lights, so you learn how to craft torches and put them up around your shelter to ward the monsters off. You learn to craft armor and weapons from leather, wood and metal. Not all your measures work, but after a while you find a combination that gets you through the night — and when the sun comes up, the monsters either burst into flames and die or scramble off to hide in their caves until it goes back down again, leaving the world to you once more to mine and craft in, at least while the sun shines.
So that’s Minecraft. But while the above gives you a general idea of how it works, it doesn’t really give you an idea of why it works — why so many people find it so compelling. For that, we turn to this strip from the webcomic Penny Arcade:
That’s the reaction that hundreds of thousands of gamers have had to Minecraft: a sort of initial puzzlement, followed by an “aha!” moment, followed by hours and hours and hours and hours of play, building things like Hogwarts and the starship Enterprise and a complete 16-bit computer out of Minecraft bricks.
But after I spent a while working my way through three Minecraft worlds, I only had one question:
Why isn’t this more fun?
I mean, it’s a worldwide sensation, easily the most important indie game of the last few years, if not the last decade. It seems like it should be fun. But… it’s not.
Wait; I should qualify that statement. Minecraft is actually a lot of fun when you first start playing it. The problem is that the fun tails off rather quickly. My typical game of Minecraft goes something like this:
- Day One: Scramble to build a rudimentary shelter before night falls
- Day Two: Flesh out your shelter into someplace where you can ride out the nights in comfort, with doors, windows, and a bed
- Day Three: OK, I’m safe. So what the hell do I do now?
And that’s where the fun stops; at least for me.
I think this is because Minecraft can’t really decide what kind of a game it wants to be; there’s actually four games shoved together under its hood. The first is a construction game, where the fun comes from building new things out of raw materials. The second is an exploration game, where the fun comes from roaming the game’s randomly generated world. The third is an adventure game, where the fun comes from completing a quest to meet an objective, like “find gold” or “clear the monsters out of that cave.” And the fourth is a survival game, where the fun comes from trying to stay alive through the creative use of limited resources.
These are all completely viable things for a game design to attempt to do. The problem with Minecraft is that it tries to do all four simultaneously, with the result that none of them really feel fully baked. The survival game, for example, basically ends by the third night; if you make it to that point, you’ve got a safe shelter built, so there’s no more risk, and overcoming risk is what makes a survival game fun.
And what’s worse, sometimes the things the game has to do to satisfy one of the genres it aspires to reduces its own effectiveness in another. To make the exploration game more fun, for instance, Minecraft worlds are huge; you can wander for hours just enjoying the scenery. But after you’ve been wandering for a while, you realize that you have no idea how to get back to your shelter — which is where you’ve stashed all the tools and materials you need to enjoy the construction game. To make the survival game more fun, the nights are filled with deadly monsters; but that pours cold water all over the exploration game, since you can’t wander too far from the safety of your shelter for fear of getting caught out of doors at night. And so forth.
In fairness, Minecraft isn’t officially “done” yet — it was in alpha for most of its two-year lifespan, and only recently got upgraded to beta — Notch (and the company he founded with the proceeds from all those million+ sales, Mojang) seem to be trying to fix some of these problems. They introduced a craftable map and compass to cut down on the “uh oh, I’m lost” problem, and the next version as of this writing (1.8) will supposedly include a free-building “Creative” mode that strips out the monsters and lets you fly so you can just play the construction game by itself if you want to. But I’m not sure if there will ever be a really elegant way to merge all four of the games inside Minecraft together seamlessly, since they pull the design in such different directions.
I don’t mean to be too hard on Minecraft here; clearly lots of people enjoy the hell out of it, and even I find myself popping back in every now and then. But I rarely stay long, because what brings me back is the game I dream it could be, rather than the game it actually is. Potential is great, but at some point it has to be realized, or it loses its shine. And I just can’t join the Minecraft fan parade unreservedly until it starts being less about potential and more about realization.