Posted by: seanmalstrom | September 28, 2010

Minecraft is Game of the Year

Agdhgkdljfht!!! I cannot stop playing this game! I haven’t seen a game this engrossing in a long time. It’s budding phenomenon on PCs reminds me of a certain game in the eighties. Like Minecraft, that game from the eighties was very ‘blocky’, was made by one eccentric bearded engineer, was graphically behind gaming by decades, yet it took over the world. Imposters! Step aside! This is the heir to the Tetris phenomenon.

Can you imagine Minecraft on a portable player? I’d be using every available free time to ‘sneak in’ some extra mining or building.

Without a doubt, this is one of the best games I have ever seen. It reminds me of when I first played Seven Cities of Gold for the first time (“Your computer is building the New World!” it said while loading…) or even Sim-City or an MMORPG. Minecraft’s potential is so off the charts that it makes you realize how gaming is the New World and how other games, mimicking Hollywood, are so far astray from what gaming actually is.

For the readers’ pleasure, I will divide this post up between those who have no idea what Minecraft is and for those who have played it.

If you have not played Minecraft before…

The best way to explain Minecraft is to show you the experience. X’s Adventures demonstrates this well (and even got shown on ABC News for Minecraft). So if you don’t know what Minecraft is, just watch these first few videos (and if become more interested in the game, keep watching the videos).

Skipping many videos, here is one where he gets his cave to be more fleshed out.

One thing that will surprise you, dear reader, is that this game is SCARY. Remember how I would say the worlds in the old games, like Metroid and Zelda, used to be scary? Monsters were all over the place. In Minecraft, you never know when a monster will appear. You will be scared to leave your shelter at night. You will be terrified exploring deep caverns.

While many game makers make monsters into HD or ‘more realistic’, these blocky oldschool monsters are scarier than any video game monster in the past decade. Creepers deserve a place on the table as one of the ‘scariest monsters ever’ as they are quiet and explode on you (and can blow up your house!)

The reader wants to ask a question. Very well, reader. What is it?

“How big is the world?”

As big as you want it to be.

I think this is the biggest world that has ever existed in the history of video games. I think its maximum size is nine times larger than the Earth, but you will never hit that.

There are some people who do not even mine in Minecraft. They might mine to get some iron to make swords and all. But what they do instead is make a boat, make a sword, and go off into the world. They never stop. They just keep going with endless wandering. There are no ‘walls’ to this game world. It is the closest we’ve seen to infinite especially in 3d form. And what you are not seeing in that fly through is that there is a rich, vast underworld of linked caverns full of underground rivers, magma, and minerals.

In other words, Minecraft has more content than most games put together.

There are some people who question whether or not the Minecraft phenomenon is real. Is Notch just doing some slick marketing? After all, he says the servers are failing because “it cannot process all the people who are trying to buy the game.”

I can tell you the phenomenon is real. I didn’t want to initially buy this game (it is around $10). But now that I have, I cannot stop playing it. The last time I’ve seen a game this engrossing was in 2004 when World of Warcraft came out.

If you have played Minecraft before…

I am going to pre-empt and cut out all the BS that is going to dribble forth from the gaming press, game developers, and publishers of their upcoming ridiculous answers to the question: “Why did Minecraft become so popular?”

First, let us focus on what Minecraft does NOT have…

-No character.

Your character has no character. You are ‘Human’ but that is about it. You do not have a name. You do not have a family. You do not even know why you are on the world in the first place.

There is no voice acting.

Your character does not ‘speak’.

Your character doesn’t say a thing. Yet, Minecraft has tons of character. How is this possible? It is because the true character of the game is the Human playing it. Are you listening Sakamoto? No, he is probably too busy planning out the sequel to Other M which will focus on the ‘budding romantic relationship’ between Anthony Higgs and Samus Aran. But in Minecraft, there is absolutely NO CHARACTERIZATION. Yet, people would argue Minecraft has more characterization than any other game out there. Why? It is because you can shape and reshape the game’s world. This puts Minecraft to be similar to games like Sim City, Civilization, and Populous. But let us remember that games like Super Mario Brothers became extremely popular in part due to how the player can reshape its world by breaking bricks. (There was no block destruction in Mario Brothers or in the Donkey Kong games.) I remember many people would stay in 1-2 and just break EVERY BLOCK IN THE LEVEL. Why? Because they could. And because they might find a surprise. As the Mario games went on, this element was slowly removed and appeared to have disappeared entirely with the 3d Mario games. People love being able to interact with the environment. And by interacting, the player wants the option to level the entire level or construct a tower.

-No story.

The game has no plot. Although Notch, the game’s maker, has acknowledged there needs to be some sort of ‘Endgame’ where you can actually ‘beat’ the game, at least in single player, but it is so refreshing that there is no stupid story made by a game developer who thinks he is God’s gift to creativity.

The reason why games are not as interactive as they once were is because the gameplay keeps being placed in a straitjacket known as ‘story’. Games don’t need stories.

-No adviser.

There is no fairy or imp or magical being giving you ‘advice’ or telling you what to do. You learn as you go just like how it is in the real world.

-No artstyle.

This game has no artstyle. It isn’t even trying to get an artstyle. And this is how games used to be. Some say games of the Atari Era or 8-bit Era were the way they were because of ‘limited technology’. Yet, I see kids wearing shirts of 8-bit Mario and Zelda proudly and these kids were born after these games came out. Many point to these ‘pixel’ based games as ‘art’. This is quite ironic since these games had no intentional art-style. Their focus was trying to be a game with an interactive world.

So while Nintendo debates among itself whether which artstyle is better, perhaps they need to ask that having no artstyle is the best choice of them all.

-No ordered world.

This I absolutely love. There is nothing scripted in this game. The world is randomly generated. The monsters randomly spawn. In the old games, such as RPGs, monsters used to randomly spawn and all. But all of this is never seen in games today. Today, everything is nicely ‘ordered’ in games and the gameplay is like a vehicle for the player to drive through the developers’ “brilliant” scripts.

If you believe anything you read on this site, know that Zelda originally became popular precisely because there was no ‘order’. You would pick a direction and go exploring. In Zelda II, monsters randomly spawned like other RPGs of that era. In Zelda I and LTTP (and maybe even Ocarina), YOU COULD GET LOST EXPLORING THE WORLD. Developers and publishers think the gamer does not want to get lost. How wrong they are! We desperately CRAVE to get lost. People are sick of games that feel like going through corridors.

The Big Myth: Minecraft is successful because it is a ‘sandbox’ game.

Expect this to be repeated over and over again. It looks like a ‘sandbox’ game only by a surface only analysis. Look deeper.

Because most games suck, I do not have many examples I can point to and say, “This is what real gaming is.” Finally, I have a golden example.

There are three big reasons behind Minecraft’s success.

-Accessibility

This game is obviously designed to be as simple as possible. However, let us pretend I made Minecraft, and I worked for Nintendo. I would present this alpha to Iwata. What would he say? I guarantee he would disagree that the game is ‘accessible’. He would say, “The world is too big,” or “There are too many items to craft,” or “You can get lost too easily in the world.”

The game runs in a Java applet. How much simpler can you get? Minecraft tapped a Blue Ocean by not focusing on features every other game does (like graphics and “production values”) to focus on creating a MASSIVE world with MASSIVE interactivity. Note how the massive world and massive interactivity does not SCARE away players, it ATTRACTS them.

I don’t have much to say about the accessibility. The controls are so ridiculously simple. The concept of the game is so ridiculously simple. Like Tetris, everything is simplified to blocks.

-Feeling of Growth

What fuels playing behind RPGs and, especially today, MMORPGs is the feeling of growth. You keep playing to get a better weapon, better armor. The more you play, the more you grow within the game. (Zelda used to have this. Ever since Zelda went to the scripted nonsense, you only get nice things when the linear story allows it.)

One of the best examples of ‘Feeling of Growth’ is Ultima VII. In Ultima VII, due to its unique engine, everything in the game is interactive. What many players do is that they make a secret house, they hoard armor and weapons, they stock up on food, they buy a boat, they get tons of stuff not needed to beat the game. People commonly do this in most RPGs as well such as MMORPGs.

Are RPGs or MMORPGs considered a ‘sandbox’ game? No. They are ‘feeling of growth’ games.

The issue is that sandbox and ‘User Generated Content’ games already exist. Why does Minecraft sell and those games do not? Perhaps it is because they are not the same.

I think the sandbox meme got started when people looked at people doing crazy stuff like this rollercoaster and thought, “Oh, a sandbox game!”

Anyone who has played Minecraft will tell you that something like that rollercoaster took a TON OF TIME AND EFFORT to make. And I am not talking about building it. I am referring to mining the materials, dodging lava, avoiding rivers of water coming from the ceiling, going through caverns full of monsters, etc. I contend what you are really seeing is ‘feeling of growth’. People are making a castle not because they are responding to Minecraft like a box of legos. They are making a castle because it gives them a ‘feeling of growth’. If you ask people, “Why did you make a castle?” they might answer, “Because of the monsters!” Currently, the monsters could do nothing against a castle. Monsters can’t even jump over anything two blocks high. Minecraft requires the player to create a shelter to survive in the early game. But the player doesn’t stop! The player keeps going, and going, and going, and the shelter gets bigger, BIGGER, and BIGGER! The player doesn’t know he has overshot the threat of the monsters.

In the same way, players tend to get to level 99 or some absurd high level in RPG games. Why? They don’t need to level that much. But they do so anyway. The reason why is that the player MUST level at the beginning of the game. This creates a feeling of growth. The player loves this feeling of growth so much that the player keeps leveling, even getting every job for their characters. Note how none of this has anything to do with a ‘sandbox’. A ‘sandbox’ is properly defined more as a construction kit. Minecraft is not a construction kit game although it may have started out that way. The big, big reason why Minecraft is striking such a chord is because of the last reason…

-Emergent Gameplay

Emergent gameplay contrasts with the more scripted gameplay. Scripted gameplay has become so prevalent that developers no longer imagine any other sort of gameplay. “Give me freedom, developer! Let me go explore!” “No! Here is another cutscene for you to go through. And once you finish the first dungeon, you get your item. You must do it my way.” Emergent gameplay is the game acting like a well tuned clock rather than a conveyor belt (trying to ram ‘experiences’ at you).

Emergent gameplay is something like random monsters in old school RPGs. The monsters are always a surprise and every player has a different experience. Civilization is another good example of emergent gameplay as wars, enemy civilizations, and all just ‘emerge’ and none of it is scripted to a particular plot. Each game of Civilization is different. RTS games, like Starcraft, also have emergent gameplay in that your enemy could surprise attack you at any time. Oh no! Cloaked banshees! What do you do? You were not planning on that! While video game analysts wonder why gamers are flocking to multiplayer, has anyone considered it is because multiplayer depends on emergent gameplay and not scripted gameplay?


Above: The guy accidentally burns down his house. This is emergent gameplay. It is the king of all surprises.

Iwata says video games, like any entertainment, depend on ‘surprise’. So Nintendo keeps trying to come up with ways to ‘surprise’ people. While with mediums like novels and movies, things like plot and character surprise people. Video games do not have plot or character and the ones that do are often very poorly made. Much of the element of surprise from video games comes from emergent gameplay. If I kill the monster, what loot will drop? No matter what happens, it is a surprise. If I explore through this wall, what will happen? If something happens, the player will be surprised. If nothing happens, the player becomes disappointed that the world is so scripted, so boring. The player will conclude the world feels small. But with emergent gameplay, the world feels large. This is how games like the early RPGs such as Final Fantasy and early Zeldas could FAKE being a huge epic world due to the unscripted experiences occurring to the player.

Minecraft is quite a master of emergent gameplay. First of all, the entire world is randomized and extends into infinity (not really but might as well). You have no idea what is over the next hill or what is in the next cave. Surprises are all over the place! When mining you don’t know what is going to come up. Sometimes you might run into some coal. Or some iron. Or some dirt (eww). Or some water or lava! It is a constant surprise.

How the monsters were done in Minecraft is brilliant. Monsters spawn whenever there is darkness. So monsters spawn during the night (and burn to death when the sun comes out). During the night, a monster could surprise you since he could have spawned on a mountain or somewhere you didn’t expect. Most brilliantly, monsters spawn in the underground because it is dark. If you spread out your torches, no monsters will spawn. But a friend of mine, who was building a tower, spaced his torches too far and there was a small area that was pitch black. A skeleton spawned there and shot my friend in the face with an arrow while he was on the ladder. He was so stunned, he lost his grip on the ladder and fell to his death. My friend told me that when got shot with the arrow, his body jumped out of the chair full of adrenaline. This sort of surprise could only occur with an unscripted experience, only with emergent gameplay.

Show me a major Japanese game franchise, and I will show you how the towers of Japanese gaming were built on Emergent Gameplay. Since the Japanese only make games of Scripted Gameplay today, it is no wonder their towers are crumbling.

Final Fantasy was founded on emergent gameplay. You could define your party, define your party’s skills, and monsters were random. While the game obviously corralled you to certain areas, you were always free to go back and stay in an earlier level if you wanted (such as going through the Ogre Hall again and again and again and again).

Super Mario Brothers was founded on emergent gameplay. Mario was the first video game character that I can recall who could reshape the game’s levels. Mario could remove blocks. Also, Mario could skip parts of levels by going through pipes. Mario could go through a level in many different ways (perhaps running on the top, perhaps by engaging each enemy). Hell, in Super Mario Brothers you could skip entire levels via the Warp Zone. That was huge back then. Today, 3d Mario is very scripted. When playing through the level, you MUST get the item in order to beat it. Each level can only be finished a CERTAIN way. And do not think about hopping in a Warp Zone and going to the end of the game. There is a script that you are forced to go through.

Legend of Zelda was founded on emergent gameplay. You were not told to go into the cave to get the sword. The player’s own curiosity brought him there. You did not have to upgrade your sword or get better armor. But players did so anyway. While the world was not random, the world felt so vast that it was easy to get lost in. And it was because of that, encounters would occur that the player never expected and took the player by surprise. Zelda used to be about exploring because you never knew what was around the next corner. You felt like you were in a vast world. When a Zelda player is asked what he wants in the next Zelda, you will find this answer common: “I want to get my sword and just go out into the world, any direction I choose, and go exploring. Just drop me off in the middle of the world with my sword. I don’t need any other of the baggage.” What the player is really saying is that he wants the emergent gameplay that once defined Zelda. In older Zelda games, nothing was scripted or felt scripted. You could choose different tactics to defeat enemies. Today, Zelda is entirely scripted with tons of baggage (i.e. story). From Zelda I to Spirit Tracks, you can see a clear but slow moving away from the emergent gameplay to more and more scripted gameplay. Now, Zelda games even have some character, which you can never get away from, telling you which way to go and what to do. And Nintendo wonders why their market data of disinterested gamers say they ‘feel video games are like work’. This is why I consider Aonuma’s comments on Skyward Sword to be a ‘red flag’ because he talked about ‘taking away Link’s sword’ for a scripted experience (a dungeon encounter). This tells me Aonuma has no interest in making emergent gameplay but only desires to make ‘scripted experiences’. Consider this: many players have said they are tired of the Zelda ‘formula’. They even suggest that the dungeon and overworld blur where it is unsure where one begins and one ends. What the player is really desiring is that emergent gameplay where nothing is scripted, where events ‘just happen’ because Link accidentally ran into some monsters who happened to spawn on top of a mountain instead of the valley, where Link accidentally did Dungeon 3 first and then discovered Dungeon 1, etc. Instead, Aonuma will think the game needs more unique ‘scripted experiences’ such as a dungeon that doesn’t look like a dungeon but resembles a bakery. Aonuma will think this is ‘surprising’ and ‘creative’ to make the bakery into a dungeon. The player will not be amused and will be fed up. The issue isn’t WHAT TYPE of scripted experience, the issue is the premise of scripted experiences in the first place.

Look at Metroid. No other series has a more blatant example of emergent gameplay de-evolving into scripted gameplay from Metroid I to Other M. Like Minecraft, Metroid I had the player blowing up blocks, floors, anything and accidentally running into enemies and falling into the lava. But the player did this in hopes to get a goody (an item). The player considers this all part of the adventure. For decades, Metroid was defined, for better or worse, as ‘exploratory’ and ‘backtracking’ meaning that players thought of the game as breaking up their surroundings and exploring every crevice. Sakamoto considers the exploration and ‘hunting for items’ to be ‘boring’ and thinks players put up with it only to enjoy the environment or story. Other M was made on that premise. The hostile reaction should be a clue that the Metroid ship went the wrong way and landed on the rocks. Emergent gameplay would be more in line with the earlier Metroids (Metroid I, II, and Super) and would explain why Metroid became popular in the first place.

I can go on and on about this subject. But Minecraft has torn me away from Starcraft 2 and is keeping me from answering your emails or updating this blog. Anyway guys, I’ve got to go back to the bottom of the Earth to hunt for some diamonds. The New World is awaiting…

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