Seemingly in defiance of all logical conventions of game development, a computer game called Minecraft is quickly gaining popularity. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a big deal — statistically speaking, some games have to do well. What makes Minecraft unusual is that it’s still in development, with a dev team of approximately one. With some exaggeration — the core gameplay idea comes from Infiniminer by Zachtronic Industries, and the audio and art assets have their own designers — Minecraft is designed and programmed by Markus Persson and his company Mojang Specifications.
Games with development teams as small as Minecraft’s typically don’t do this well for the same reason that one–man bands don’t typically play the Metropolitan Opera House: there’s not much that one person can do that a full orchestra can’t do better, and people won’t pay for a full–price ticket when they can see similar performances in the street performing venue of Internet browser games. In Minecraft’s case, however, the one–man band has sold hundreds of thousands of copies through a combination of incredible scale, deceptively complex gameplay, and if the response on the Internet is any indication, probably subliminal messaging.
Not to be confused with office procrastination tool Minesweeper or sci–fi Korean career path Starcraft, the primary gameplay mode of Minecraft consists of mining and crafting resources alone in an enormous world made entirely of meter–cube blocks, the usual objective being to build shelter for protection from the mobs of skeletons, zombies, and other baddies that roam the world at night. I say “usual” because Minecraft is open–ended, with no built–in story. Most players will opt to build a shelter, but one could theoretically be a Minecraft nomad with no home base. I tried that approach once, myself, which turned out to be ill–advised and terrifying. The variety of building materials available is substantial, making shelter construction equal parts architecture and interior design — like The Sims, but less suburban.
Saying that Minecraft is mildly addictive would be like calling a spoonful of microwave popcorn butter mildly unhealthy, and if my doctor knew how much I partook of either, my neck stiffness and iffy cholesterol would have come as much less surprise at my last physical. Survival gameplay centering on acquisition of supplies and constant improvement of the player’s situation, describable as “Robinsonian” (after adventure survival novels Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson) by the literary and pretentious, seems to appeal to the inner last person on earth in all of us.
The openness of Minecraft provides gameplay options for most players and player moods. Explorers and their monkey sidekicks can spelunk for natural cave systems deep underground or journey to new areas of the procedurally generated game world. Roleplayers can customize their lifestyles and homes to their alter ego’s heart’s desire. Combat–oriented players can suit up in literally homemade armor and weapons and patrol the landscape at night to hunt down the deadly enemies that spawn in the dark. Social players can play an equally open–ended multiplayer mode, with all the hazards and rewards of talking with other people online. And of course, enterprising geeks with disposable time can and have replicated in excruciating detail the game worlds of their favorite media. Highlights include an explorable map of the original Pokémon world, the underground city of Rapture from Bioshock, and a 1:1 scale model in progress of, appropriately, the Starship Enterprise.
As with many open–world games, however, Minecraft is subject to what I call Avatar Existential Crisis — the gradual realization that the hours spent burrowing underground questing for the most rare and valuable resources like a kleptomaniacal Bugs Bunny are devoid of meaning. Once you’ve dug to the bottom of the world and built a castle in the sky, and blown it all up with TNT made from painstakingly harvested gunpowder, digging yet another hole elsewhere seems bland and unimportant. As it happens, the game is still in the alpha phase of development with persistent updates, including a major one this past Halloween. As fun as the game is, some of the design decisions can occasionally feel arbitrary or opaque in their reasoning, such as having zombies drop feathers upon death, and because it’s still in development, the quality of the game could conceivably go up or down. The prognosis ultimately depends on the amount of faith one has in the developer. Considering the jumping–off point, though, it’s hard to imagine things going too terribly far downhill, but I suppose that’s part of the collective adventure. The alpha version of Minecraft is available for online download for about $15.