Minecraft is a phenomenon and it’s hard to ignore its existence. Everything from t-shirts to even Lego sets based of a popular game that came into the public purview in 2009 has been a world-wide hit selling over 200 million copies as of writing. What made it so magical to begin with?
How could something that looks like a game of blocks as the image below be so popular?
In a world where games are always focused on the best-looking graphics and now raytracing is the “thing” to talk about, it’s hard to imagine that such a bizarre and simplistic game became so popular. Even in 2009, games had some beautiful qualities to them like The Witcher:
While graphics certainly add a quality to video games, and there are people who refuse to play games without quality graphics, it doesn’t drive what makes a game fun. Too often we find reviews of video games where they dissect everything from graphics, user interface, gameplay mechanics, and story to name a few. Rarely do they ever mention “fun”, which Minecraft had neither of the aforementioned qualities other than it was just damn fun.
I first played Minecraft in its alpha stage, an early prototype of software where core mechanics are implemented, but the game is far from release as nothing is actually tested. I spotted it on Reddit, a community-based website, where people mentioned it frequently. Even though it was in alpha stage of development, people were purchasing it by the hundreds – and eventually thousands – per day.
There is no tutorial or user guide, but I can remember clearly my first time playing the game almost a decade later. I installed the game and clicked some settings and then I was transported into a giant world of ugly blocks. The developer of the game, who goes by the nickname “Notch”, clearly wasn’t an artist, but he made it clear that green was grass, brown was dirt, and there were some trees with trunks, bushes, water, and hills. It was as if someone threw a Lego set into a video game and said, “this is good enough.”
Using the WASD keys on my keyboard, I moved my character forward and looked around. A lot of things to see, but no direction on what to actually do. I had to open a wiki page on the game to find out that I needed to build a crafting table to build anything like an axe, and to build the crating table I needed wood. I found a tree and began punching it – yes, punching. It disintegrated into tiny little blocks and if I stepped into them they went to my inventory at the bottom of the screen. Once I collected them, I could configure them in a building screen, which was basically another inventory-looking set of tiles, and build a crafting table.
I placed it down in front of me and looked back at the wiki to figure out how I could build an axe to cut trees faster. Then, what would I do with the wood? Could I build a house? Could I build a sword? What about a hoe for farming? The answer was yes to all of these questions. I could build anything I wanted. I could do almost anything I wanted.
That was true until I saw a little cactus-like creature looking at me. It got a little too close for comfort and began hissing. Then, pop! It exploded, killing me with it.
Completely shocked, I resorted to laughing. I couldn’t believe a cactus, lovingly called “the creeper”, blew me to pieces. I had to start a new game and lo-and-behold, it was completely different. The game was procedurally generated; no map was ever the same nor ever created again. While procedural generation wasn’t new, this was the first game to popularize the concept. That core concept came from another game called Infiniminer. Notch stated that he wanted to build Infiniminer with RPG (Role-Playing Game) elements.
In the new game I went straight for punching the trees and a wooden axe, then created more advanced tools and began to dig into the ground, because, well, the name “Minecraft” involves mining of course. The further you dig, the more likely you find better ore like copper, iron, etc. You use those materials to build more advanced materials to fight off critters like spiders, skeletons, and zombies. As I dug deeper, I placed candle lights along the walls, so I could see until I hit a hole and fell into a cave of lava. I immediately died and I was in love with the game. Eventually, the game added a save point by building a bed and the game kept expanding, and expanding, and expanding, and 11 years later it still keeps expanding after Notch sold the game to Microsoft a few years ago.
At the time, purchasing a game before it was fully released was unheard of. These days, you can find early access games and many independent development studios depend on consumers purchasing the game so they can have enough funding to finish them. It’s almost a fundamental need.
The simple concept of purchasing a game before it was released was a cultural impact. Prior to Minecraft, I can’t recall a single game that was purchasable prior to completion. Notch said that over time the game would increase in cost, so I purchased it early on for $10. Many early access games do this, but more frequently than not they have a high cost (like $50) instead, and the price goes down after release. It honestly seems backwards to me because you’re buying a promise of a video game rather than the video games itself. There have been a few games I purchased in early access, and they never completed. I no longer do so for this very reason.
While I stopped playing long before there was an end-game, people continue to play for reasons beyond finding an end to it. I grew up playing video games where there was always a definite end. Zelda: A Link to the Past had a final boss and a conclusion to the game, for example, but Minecraft did not for years. People kept playing to see what they could build. Everything from a tiny town to a city:
Or even building video games within a video game:
To probably one of my favorites of all time: a pig cannon.
If it wasn’t for the incredible amount of things one could accomplish in the game, you would think that it would be enough to keep a momentum in interest. But, there’s more: modding. Minecraft was built in Java and due to the way it was designed, it allowed people to modify the files to expand the Minecraft universe. Some mods added dozens of different animals and enemies to the games, while others added natural disasters and seasons. The below video contains just some examples of what could be accomplished by the user community:
The most interesting part of the game to me was not procedural generation nor was it the crafting itself. It was one of the first games that launched an entire genre of video games: survivor. The crafting was a means to an end of surviving in this random wilderness. Health points do exist just like any RPG, and they reduce upon receiving damage or starving from hunger. I needed to build a fishing rod to catch fish if there was water nearby, or find pigs and cows to slaughter for food. I could cook the meat and store it for a while, but I had to keep searching for food to survive. If I found wheat growing somewhere, I could harvest the seeds and begin planting farms. Farms need water, obviously, so I built aqueducts to ensure water from the ocean or a nearby river could feed the plants. Once the wheat grew, I would harvest it and make (craft) bread in an oven.
Building an oven in an open environment wasn’t safe. I had to build a home to keep things like skeletons and spiders out. It always started as a simple cave inside some rock I found while I waited for night to pass as I discovered zombies burn in the sun. Then I would build a simple house where I’d store some food and some crafting materials. The house would keep expanding over time, while farms and keeping animals fenced in for an unlimited food supply.
I could build a moat with lava if I wanted while making an entrance with arrows that would launch into spiders, creepers, or whatever decided to step on triggers. At times, including myself. The possibilities were endless.
While this entire article makes me sound like Minecraft is the greatest game, it does have a few problems for many people besides the blocky graphics:
- To learn how to craft anything, you had to refer to a wiki and dig through pages just to learn what you could even build. Though, there are mods for that now, it should really be built within the game itself. http://www.9minecraft.net/craftguide-mod/
- While an end-game has since been created, achieving it is not straight-forward and requires research, and obviously knowing what to craft to get there (see point #1).
Over the years there were several additions to the game like villages where you could interact and trade with the villagers. I would’ve thought this would be an end-game scenario acting as if you were lost on an island trying to get back to civilization. Another potential end-game scenario I saw in my head was escaping the planet by building a rocket ship. The actual end-game involves going to the Nether (hell-like dimension) and slaying a dragon through a ridiculous amount of steps that require crafting recipes, which you have to research to find. I find no reason to beat the game; Instead, I’ll enjoy it for what it is: a glorious first-person Lego mining survivor game.
Minecraft was never the first or the best of anything specifically, but did all the rights things at the right time:
- Purchasable throughout development (Early Access)
- A sandbox where your imagination could go wild
- Procedurally generated maps
- Allowed community mods
- Helped launch the survivor genre