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.



Recommended Things

At Octacon 2011 atendees were invited to nominate up to three genre works that may not be known to all present. Thus we present the Octacon “List of Recommended (SF) Things”.

Authors and Novels




Online Media

Television Series

Jim Butcher’s Ghost Story

US cover of Ghost Story by Jim ButcherThe Dresden Files was always a series that was going to appeal – a hard-boiled, wisecracking detective in an urban fantasy setting was something that I could be guaranteed to like. And, as a concept, I most certainly have enjoyed it: Butcher has done a fine job of world building, and I’ve greatly enjoyed the place he has created.

For those who haven’t caught the series, the Dresden Files follows Harry Dresden, a wizard and private investigator working out of Chicago. Dresden has been described as a magical thug – he doesn’t have the finesse to pull off many complex magical spells, but he has the raw power to hit hard. Thus the series tends to follow a basic framework: Harry discovers something is wrong, Harry finds the cause, and Harry burns the perpetrator (be it a vampire, evil magician, werewolf or other) to death in massive amounts of magical fire (or some similarly, over-the-top, magical spell). Harry isn’t subtle. On the way Harry tends to get caught up in a mess of problems, typical arriving at the story’s climax half dead from the various battles he’s been through on the way. It feels a bit like a fantasy version of Die Hard, where Harry survives more by stubbornness and an unwillingness to die than anything else.

This, of course, changed in the aptly named Changes, the 12th novel in the series. At the end of Changes Harry was dead, creating a bit of a problem, although the alert reader will presume that this isn’t a state that is likely to limit Harry: Butcher had already revealed that there would be at least 20 books in the series, so his continued appearance was assured. Thus Ghost Story continues to follow Harry’s adventures, only now as a corporally-challenged magical private investigator.

In the latest novel, Harry returns to Chicago as a ghost under instructions to find his murderer, knowing that if he fails at least two of his friends will suffer. As a ghost his abilities are severely curtailed: he can only been seen by a select few individuals, he is under constant threat by his fellow undead, and he can’t directly interact with the physical world.  Therefore in this novel he is following a new set of challenges, having to stop and think rather than just throw fire and burn everything that stands in his path. The opposition has changed as well. In Changes, Harry was fighting against the vampires of the Red Court (the world of Harry Dresden involves four distinct types of vampires, with Red Court being a variation of the traditional blood-sucking, sun-avoiding monsters). This is no longer an issue. The new villains major are The Fomor,  but they play a mostly off-stage role in Ghost Story. Instead the focus is the Grey Ghost, a seemingly new character that is interested in Mortimer Lindquist, an ectomancer. On Harry’s side are many of the same characters from the earlier novels: his apprentice, Molly, ex-cop Karrin Murphy, coroner Waldo Butters, the friendly werewolves, and Bob (the skull). What makes it more interesting is that they don’t trust Harry, and tend to marginalise his input – an interesting change from the preceding novels, although the focus remains on the somewhat-ignored Harry throughout the book.

So now for the negatives. I stand by my earlier comment that I love the world building in the novels, and I’ll add to that a love of the plotting and the witty- one-liners. What I don’t love is the dialog and characterisation – if nothing else, there are only so many times you can read “hell’s bells” on a page before it becomes more than just a tad distracting, and other than Harry and Bob, most of the characterisation tends to be poor. Butcher did spend some time on the secondary characters here, but it still felt a bit like a wasted opportunity. Generally speaking, Butcher’s writing is serviceable, (even though his plotting and world building are very strong), and while this is sufficient for a while (in much the same way that you can ignore the script in a big-budget Hollywood special effects extravaganza, and for much the same reason), over thirteen novels it tends to make itself felt.

Other than those concerns, I have to admit that, although I love SF references and in-jokes, I’ve now discovered that I have my limits. Unfortunately, we ran into that limit before the end of the novel, so the climatic scene fell more than a little flat. It was also disappointing that some of the themes that were alluded to – such as the nature of free will, the soul, and the role of memories in identity – were referred to but barely explored. As part of this, it was, in a sense, disappointing how the solution to many of Harry’s problems was the same as it always is: the situation Harry was in was, unsurprisingly, very different from those he had been placed in before, yet his response was, ultimately, what we’re used to. It seemed a bit like another lost opportunity, a chance to explore alternative directions that don’t involve massive amounts of killing fire. But, I guess, there’s something to be said for special effects, even if they’re literary instead of on the screen.

But there was one major plus that has restored my enjoyment of the series. The earlier Dresden Files novels had delightfully convoluted plots: Harry would be chasing several different leads on several different problems, which may or may not come together at the end. Thus the last stages of the novels saw Harry running from place-to-place, winding up plot threads has he worked his way to the ultimate showdown at the end. But this had been reduced in the more recent books, with more narrowly focused stories that lost some of that Die Hard feeling that I had enjoyed so much before. Ghost Story brings it back: by the end of the novel Harry has multiple threads to follow, some of which are related and some which aren’t, and all of which he has to settle within a few hours. Thus we fully return to the model that I had enjoyed when I first encountered the books.

Overall, I purchased this book with some trepidation, but was rewarded with what was both an enjoyable read and a nice segue into the new direction for the series. I’d have loved to have seen more of the characters that weren’t Harry, and perhaps less of the SF references, backstory and painful self-recrimination, but it provided some much-needed backstory, was pleasantly convoluted, and had the action one would expect from a Dresden novel. All of which combined to make for a good return for the series, and one which has reinvigorated my interest.