Biomes in Minecraft - here the swamp gives way to the desert.

Minecraft is due to be released in just a few weeks at a dedicated Minecraft convention in Las Vegas. However, even prior to the official release, the alpha, beta and pre-release beta versions have sold almost 4 million copies. This success is even more surprising when one considers that the game is written in Java, is still largely incomplete, has no clear goal, is buggy, employs low-resolution “blocky” graphics and textures, often requires players to sacrifice their work when new versions come out, and was initially developed by an independent programmer in his spare time.

Minecraft was developed by Markus Persson, better known to his followers as “Notch”. Notch had left his role with a game company to focus on independent game development, and had an idea for a game focused on building. Encountering the game InfiniMiner, Notch discovered the direction he wanted to take and started work in earnest. InfiniMiner was a mining game where the intent was for players to compete to find resources and bring them to the surface. But the payers went somewhere else: instead of competing to get resources and points, they started spending all of their time using the resources to construct in-game objects.

Zombie attack

Minecraft took this further. There are no points in Minecraft: just mining and building. The game places the player in a large procedurally generated world. Although deliberately blocky in design, the world is a mix of environments, including oceans, lakes and rivers, mountains and plains, and deserts and icy tundras. Populating this world is an unusual mix of creatures, from the mundane (pigs, cows and squid) to the violent (zombies, giant spiders and creepers). The more typical animals provide food and resources – from cows you can get beef, milk and leather; squid provide ink; sheep give wool; and chickens provide eggs, meat and feathers. The more aggressive inhabitants can also provide resources, but they are predominantly there to make your work a tad harder. (On the plus side, zombies and skeletons burn in sunlight, so they only present a threat at night or when you are in darkness, and spiders are non-aggressive during the day – although creepers, who explode when they get too close, are a constant threat). Along with the fauna is the flora, which includes grass, trees, flowers, mushrooms, bamboo, cacti and watermelons. These also provide much needed food and resources. But the point of the game isn’t the flora and fauna. They help to create a varied world, but the threats are easily overcome and the resources they provide are simple enough to come by. The really valuable stuff comes from the “mine” in Minecraft. Digging and exploring caves underground provides a wealth of useful ores, from rock and coal through to diamond and obsidian. By mining the world players are able to get the resources they need to build and survive.

This, of course, is where the “craft” comes into play. These resources can be used as they stand (cobblestone floors, wooden walls), or crafted into new things. For example, combine eight blocks of cobblestone in the correct fashion, and you’ve got a furnace. Toss in some iron ore and coal, and you have iron ingots. Take three iron ingots and add two sticks and you have an iron pickaxe: and with an iron pickaxe you can mine diamond, and with diamond you can make a diamond pickaxe. The diamond pickaxe can be used to mine obsidian, which in turn has some particular uses. The more you dig and explore, the more raw materials you get, and the greater the opportunities you have to combine them into something interesting. From chests and beds, through to castles suspended in the air, powered mine carts running along iron tracks, and virtual circuitry – including logic circuits to build computers and music sequencers within the game. When complete, you can share your designs through videos, by building them on multiplayer servers, or just through screenshots and shared save files.

For a while I foolishly found the success of the game curious – why, I wondered, would people be so devoted to a game that has no goal? It seems that I’m an idiot. I spent my younger years dedicated to Lego, and, like Minecraft, that has also no goal beyond the fun of creating. Thinking about it, there is nothing new or unusual about playing building games. It is simply that I forgot, somewhere along the line, that I can have fun without high resolution graphics and complex targeted gameplay. Fortunately Nothch didn’t forget. And fortunately, my children have discovered it as well.

A village from Minecraft 1.9

That said, Minecraft is a wonderful sandbox, but it has never been perfect, and I think it is reasonable to question whether or not the direction it is heading in is a wise one. Minecraft has been developed using an iterative model. Every so often Notch and his team would release a new version of the game, from the early alpha releases, through the on going beta versions, and more recently they started dropping buggy “pre-release betas” onto the market. Each version contains new features and modified functionality: for example, 1.8 beta introduced ravines, villages and strongholds, whilst the 1.9 pre-releases populated the village and introduced enchantments. To a large extent this has been working, but it relies heavily on the goodwill of the consumers (which, I should say, has been in abundance), and I fear that the increasing complexity may loose the enjoyable simplicity seen in the earlier versions. That second fear is something I see echoed in my son – he loves the game, and when he isn’t playing it he’s looking online to find out what is happening with the new releases, reading the Minecraft wiki, and watching every video he can get his hands on. Yet with each new version he expresses reservations, concerned that it won’t be as good as the old version was. So far that hasn’t happened, but it is an interesting aspect of the development model employed for the game.

It is also worth noting that the game has a rather idiosyncratic view of physics (and in particular gravity), but I suppose that can be seen as a feture as much as a a bug.

At any rate, I highly recommend Minecraft, and getting involved during the beta means that you will can get a copy a bit cheaper than when it is officially released. It is cross platform, relatively cheap, and it is genuinely enjoyable to play a game about building, exploring and avoiding zombies.