In case you missed the buzz – Minecraft is an online game developed by lone coder Markus Persson (www.twitter.com/notch) that has sold half a million copies, enabling Markus to set up his own company. It’s the Blair Witch Project of gaming.
I finally succumbed and bought it last week. Money well spent. The game is a design masterpiece, fusing user-created content, grinding, exploration and atmosphere.
The deliberately crude block-based art style creates an impressionistic gameworld that’s as evocative as you care to make it. One player might laugh at the square cows and write rude words in a cliffside, another might immerse themselves in the fiction, roleplaying the lone survivor. And the world generation algorithm is superb, creating fascinating ‘natural’ formations and labyrinthine caves to explore. Where most gameworlds are like movie sets, where only the surfaces you can see exist, Minecraft has a truly 3D world.
But all this is just the foundation for the crafting mechanics. Remarkably, the game is playable without doing any crafting at all – a mud hut is sufficient to survive the night. But who wants to stop at a mud hut when they could build a castle, or a whole city? More varied building materials are locked away behind a series of challenges. First, make some tools so you can dig faster. Then you’ll need to refine the raw materials you mine or harvest from animals. You’ll need coal to make torches so you can work at night, and weapons and armour so you can survive being ambushed as you dig deeper. The risk/reward cycle is well-balanced and extremely satisfying because it’s driven entirely by your own desire to smelt sand into glass windows for your castle. I haven’t even touched on growing your own plants yet. The crafting rules and threat from monsters model a survivalist adventure with surprising verisimilitude.
I’m thoroughly enjoying delving deep into this cubist ecosystem. Perhaps it’s due to the retro cubic look, perhaps it’s the underground exploration, but the game it most reminds me of is Ultima Underworld. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is high praise indeed.
Oh, and then there’s multiplayer. I may have to wax lyrical on that mode too, when I’ve tried it…