Saturday, September 18, 2010

Minecraft, Everybody's Doing It!

Sometimes, for reasons that we don't entirely understand (although Malcolm Gladwell took a look at some factors in his book "The Tipping Point"), an idea, or meme, or a product suddenly gains rapid popularity.  "Going viral" it's often called these days, meaning that it's no longer being spread by the owner advertising it, but it is spreading via other people, spreading infectiously, like a virus outbreak.  Sometimes it's just a silly internet video ("double rainbow!" was a recent one) but when it's a product, suddenly everybody is talking about it/buying it/using it.

This past week a small independent game called Minecraft seems to have hit that tipping point and gone viral.  I started seeing emails and links circulating at work early this week, then comments from non-work friends on Facebook, then tweets about it from people outside the game industry and outside the country.  It even got a mention on Penny Arcade towards the end of the week, which is surely a sign that a tiny independent game has "made it".  And the game isn't even out of alpha yet.

So what's the game?  Well, true to the name, it's strongly based on (a) mining and (b) crafting.  It's a fairly freeform sandbox type game, log in and you get a randomly generated world in extremely low-rez graphics.  You are (unless you try multiplayer mode) alone in the world, and must build yourself a safe haven and fend off enemies.  Enemies appear mostly in the form of undead critters:  skeletons and zombies who come out when the sun goes down and (mostly) vanish again at dawn.  A few spiders and leftover sun-resistant zombies keep the daytime interesting but are fairly rare.  You start naked with nothing, and have to make everything from scratch with your hands, slowly building up your secure fortress and your tools.  The graphics are extremely basic and the in-game help nonexistent so start off by watching some tutorial videos and then refer to the crafting wiki once you start playing.

From the minecraft wikipedia site:
Minecraft is a sandbox construction game created by Markus Persson and is currently in pre release alpha. Minecraft development started around the 10th of May 2009, pre-orders for the full game started being accepted on the 13th of June.
The game involves players creating and destroying various types of blocks in a three dimensional environment. The player takes an avatar that can destroy or create blocks, forming fantastic structures, creations and artwork across the various multiplayer servers in multiplegame modes.
As mentioned, the game is still in alpha, and payment received at present will go towards getting the game into beta and then launch.  But it's already a lot of fun; definitely one of those "just ONE more turn" games that turns into 6 hours passing without you even noticing. My boyfriend picked up the game on Thursday, and I stumbled out of bed at 1:30am that night to find his side of the bed still cold and empty, and him in the computer room hunched over his laptop saying "there's a spider out there, I'm scared to leave my fortress."  He then insisted on giving me (half asleep and without glasses on to even see) a tour of his fortress before I crawled back to bed.  When I went in to work on Friday, I found two co-workers obsessively playing it on their lunch break and discussing elaborate plans to build a sheltered valley under a glass dome for more secure livestock farming.

Whether you enjoy building massive fortresses to battle zombies, or whether you just enjoy building and decorating your home, or whether you find the somewhat unique style of crafting system more fascinating, as long as you're not a graphics junkie you'll probably find something to enjoy.  As one friend said to me, "it's sort of like playing with legos, but with zombies."  How can you go wrong there?  I found the crafting system particularly interesting.  Although it's fairly basic, many items you craft are created by actually "drawing" the item by the way you lay out the subcomponents.  For example, to make a pickaxe, "draw" the handle by laying two wooden staves end to end, then "draw" the blade by laying three blocks of ore across the top.  Simple, and fairly limited, but something I haven't seen done before and makes for some very easy mnemonics instead of just having to memorize a list of recipes "pickaxe = 2 staves and 3 ores."

Since the Penny Arcade link, the poor developer's site traffic has gone so crazy that the authentication server and purchasing page aren't even working, so the developer has announced that until he gets the servers back on track, Minecraft will be free to play for all who wish to try it.  No word exactly when this will be, so here's your chance to check it out now (and if you think it's good, do consider paying to support this independent developer once the payment servers are back on line!)

Remember, it is stilll very much alpha, so save often (by hitting escape to bring up the menu, this forces a save) and do check external sites for tutorials because there is really not a lot of help in game yet.  There's definitely still a lot more polish and content that needs to be added, but there's already lots of fun gameplay potential there and I'm really interested to see what will become of it in the long run.

My best tip: if you start on a snowy world, probably a good plan to just restart until you get one with a nicer climate.  The snow really cuts down visibility, which makes it far too easy to get lost while you're still trying to figure out the game.

UPDATE to add awesome fan-made video: YouTube Link!


  1. What I want is a cross between Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress.

    Both games are very fun.. But Minecraft needs a lot more "stuff". Where as Dwarf fortress has so much "stuff" it is hard to keep track of. (66 types of stone, 17 types of ore, Over 100 gems)

  2. The first two night/day cycles of the game are some of the best gaming I've had in a long time. Once you get the environment a bit under control, you have several hours of scrounging for goodies. After that, you're left with mega-project construction or cave exploration. Hopefully more "stuff" comes along.

  3. Thanks to Domino telling me about this gem, I'm now thoroughly addicted to Minecraft. I eagerly await future updates, and have paid my support. There's just something about it I love. I've made my monster cave drown trap and am now pondering a mining cart system... It's a refreshing break away from my usual gaming haunt. I think the games I enjoy the most are ones in which I am given the opportunity to create and customize the game world in a detailed and artistic way.