Visions of the Past, Present, and Future in ‘Minecraft’

On every analytical level, Minecraft is a game about building. While inhabiting the game world, a single player is building tools that are then used to create an environment in which to play. The player concurrently builds a more ephemeral structure in the form of the individual story that they experience. On a broader scope, legions of people are playing (and sometimes fighting) with one another in collaboratively built worlds. Minecraft‘s potential for facilitating player driven stories has helped spawn thriving communities of players who delight in swapping tales.

If we pull the camera back even further, so that we can see the entirety of the game and its place amidst its peers, we see that Minecraft has also built something else. Because of its unique structure, design, and creation, Minecraft has constructed a snapshot of the medium as a whole. The game’s player driven structure, rigorous difficulty, and rise to popularity represent an amalgamation of historical and contemporary trends in gaming while also offering hints at what the future holds.

The Present

Just as side-scrollers and platformers dominated the late 1980s and 1990s, open world and sandbox games have dominated the new millennium. With subject matter ranging from superheroes to sports cars to space marines, the open world format is widely popular. Some of the most praised games of the this genre from the past few years, such as Red Dead Redemption and Far Cry 2, have attempted to place the player in unscripted situations. Much of the praise for these games stems from the accidental beauty of emergent gameplay. Of course, beauty and chaos are not mutually exclusive and Minecraft’s malleable systems can also be cruel (as well as hilarious):

Like Red Dead Redemption and Far Cry 2, the Minecraft experience is highly dependant on the player’s choices. Should a player wish it, they can render Minecraft‘s title utterly nonsensical by refusing to mine or craft anything. Those who would rather have a hiking or gardening simulator are accommodated. On the opposite end of the spectrum, players are free to radically alter the game’s virtual terrain in order to remake it as they see fit. Minecraft games can be made to resemble traditional dungeon crawlers, but they can also be laboratories to simulate the impact of the Hiroshima bomb. Should the Minecraft computer project continue, perhaps we will be able to play Minecraft inside of Minecraft? Personally, I’m just happy to have a sense of what it would be like to walk the decks of the Enterprise:

All of this player created complexity takes place using a seemingly plain visual aesthetic. However, despite the simple geometry and crude textures, the game’s look speaks to a refreshing trend of placing artistic design over technical fidelity. While the verisimilitude of Modern Warfare is impressive, so are the stylized worlds of BioShock and Borderlands. The warmth and character that exudes from LittleBigPlanet is also present in Jason Rohrer’s works. No single look has a monopoly on expression, and Minecraft‘s shows that a consistent style is often more important than flashy tricks. The gridded, blocky landscapes of Minecraft both serve as blank slates for the imagination and as a kind of cubic impressionism. The mountains and trees in Minecraft are gorgeous because they suggest the essence of the objects that they are trying to simulate rather than an interest in capturing every detail. The player is invited to buy into the world and is rewarded for doing so.

The Past

While it is inviting, Minecraft asks much from its players. Personally, I predict that Minecraft will be one of those games that I end up studying more than playing simply because I cannot meet the game’s demands. In its current state, Minecraft offers little initial direction and holds nothing back in terms of the expectations that the player must meet. In this way, it is reminiscent of an older time in video games, a time when tools like graph paper and pencils augmented our virtual tools. Minecraft will let you fail without explicitly offering a reason. The onus is on the player to accept setbacks, learn from failure, and acknowledge that improvement may come slowly, all of which are foreign concepts in our current culture of guided tutorials and variable difficulty.

Michael Abbott wrote about this shift in player expectations and abilities after witnessing his students’ reaction to Ultima IV. Their comments consisting of confusion and frustration regarding the lack of direction and the steepness of the learning curve apply equally well to Minecraft. Despite being released 15 years after Ultima IV in a creative environment far removed from the standards of those games, Minecraft‘s take on difficulty and in-game learning is an old school one.

However, rather than hamper them, this demanding mentality has given rise to a robust, creative group of players. Because of the lack of an official guide, learning about the game has been a group experience. The mysteries found in Minecraft are more than just scripted story points: discovering how to build armor is something that comes after trial and error or research. The community itself is writing the definitive guide to Minecraft, something that would neither be as useful or necessary without the game’s emphasis on self reliance and problem solving.

All of this foments an atmosphere similar to one that existed before the ubiquity of the Internet. In the past, secrets and gaming knowledge spread more slowly and rumors were far more difficult to verify, especially for those without modems or gaming friends. The viral nature of Minecraft‘s popularity and the paucity of official documentation ensures that the game is full of unexpected experiences that get spread via the community. For me, seeing someone make an underwater house was a bit like playing Mortal Kombat II in the arcade and seeing someone pull off a “Babality”: a piece of knowledge about an outcome in the game that I didn’t even know existed was revealed, which then led me to reconsider everything else that I thought I knew about the game.

The Future

While Minecraft is an example of how a game can both balance traditional and modern approaches to design and structure, it also offers clues about the medium’s future trends. From a marketing perspective, the fact that it has sold over 300,000 units without a mainstream advertising campaign demonstrates the power that word of mouth and social networking hold. The Internet can also provide a more direct channel between developers and players. Such communication was vital in conveying Markus “Notch” Persson’s story. Knowing that he was initially the only one working on the game and actively listening to feedback imbued Minecraft with a sincerity that is difficult to attain in titles from large developers or anonymous creative leads.

The amount of control Persson exerts over selling and pricing the game shows the utility of variable pricing. By offering periodic discounts and free trials, Persson was able to turn potential lookers into buyers. Rewarding early supporters with subsequent updates builds good will and shows a willingness to let players experience the inner workings of the creative process. In a game that is inherently based on building, it is both pragmatic and poetic to be honest about how the game is being crafted.

From a design perspective, the success of a game in which crafting itself is the objective suggests that the simple act of creation is more valuable than trying to fit into a specific genre. Games like LittleBigPlanet and ModNation Racers offer a huge amount of player input, but it is difficult to create anything that breaks out of the platformer and racing genres, respectively. Because of the loose goal structure, Minecraft can easily be a platform for everything from a farming sim to a survival horror game to an architecture simulator. The key is that the system is both simple and malleable: players do more than make their own “levels” in Minecraft, they make their own experiences.

In terms of difficulty and challenge, Minecraft shows that players are still quite resourceful, and can be relied upon to solve most any problem put in front of them. True, this may include consulting an Internet walkthrough, but this is already a common tactic across all games and genres. Embracing pooled knowledge encourages players to be analytical and willing to expand the game’s sphere of existence to encompass out-of-game resources like item charts, map visualization tools, and written guides. This mentality simultaneously makes learning about the game an exercise in discovery rather than memorization and transforms FAQs from “cheats” to circumvent the game into “resources” that augment it.

It is too early to know how Minecraft’s story will end or whether it will ultimately shape the course of future games. However, Minecraft currently provides us with an image of how long standing ideas from the past manifest themselves in today’s games. Minecraft is a game from another time in terms of its approach to guidance and difficulty, yet it marries these sensibilities to modern interests like world building and player autonomy. The union is held together by players whose interest in shared discovery smooths over the rough patches that inevitably arise with such a unique pairing. Ultimately, Minecraft’s future and influence is up to them.