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Five Minutes Of... Minecraft

Here, Margaret Robertson takes five minutes to uncover a speck of what drives the design of the web's current viral gaming sensation -- a game that lives not on Facebook, but marries blocky, pixellated classicism and anarchic current day design choices.

Margaret Robertson, Blogger

October 21, 2010

11 Min Read

[Five minutes of... is a series of investigations by former Edge magazine editor-in-chief -- and current development director of social game developer Hide&Seek -- Margaret Robertson into what five minutes of play reveals about a larger game, stepping back from all-encompassing reviews and doing some hardcore design drilling into interesting moments from interesting games.]

This isn't the story of my first five minutes in Minecraft. My first five minutes were the same as your first five minutes. Baffling. Underwhelming. Confusing. A brutalist lo-fi world empty of even of the rawest materials for fun.

Took me a while to go back, during which time I'd been further confused, baffled and underwhelmed by some YouTube videos which had variously promised enlightenment, clarification, and conversion. But back I went, and as a reward my perseverance, the next five of play were among the best of my playing life.

I'm not alone in that. It's likely if you know one thing about Minecraft, it's the hyperbole surrounding its success. It's the next in that now long line of Desktop Tower Defense, of 2Across, of Doodle Jump: the one man band marching all the way to the bank.

Minecraft, at the time of writing, has clocked its maker, lone Swedish developer Markus Persson, nearly $4 million so far. Notch, as the internet knows Persson, is frank on his blog about his amazement and the impact the money is having on his life. Planning next year's wedding clearly just got a whole lot easier, and a whole lot more complicated, all at once.

This success has been fueled largely by word of mouth. People who play Minecraft are incapable of not proselytizing. Every friend is a potential convert to the religion of Notch, to the devotion of the pick and the spade. Although every friend, despite the preaching, is usually left asking, "But what is Minecraft?"

Minecraft is a game where you mine stuff and make it into other stuff. In Survival mode, which is mostly what the people who are talking about it are talking about, it's a single player game set in a vast algorithmically generated landscape of beaches, mountains, and plains. Everything in the world is made of blocks, and every block can be "mined", which will remove it from the world and convert it to a resource the player can use.

So a block of earth can be mined, collected, and replaced elsewhere. A tree, if you punch it enough, will collapse into a heap of collectable wooden blocks. These can either be used raw and replaced in the world as blocks of wood, or further refined to make timber or sticks, and these in turn made into tools which will let you tackle the tougher blocks -- iron, gold, diamond -- that you will find as you dig deeper.

So you dig, you make, you dig some more, and then you build. Simple ingredients -- wood, coal, wool, iron -- ultimately allow for the creation of stairs and doors and torches and furnaces and railway tracks and minecarts and pressure plates and compasses and record players. The list isn't endless, but it is rich, and soon your inner architect is planning palaces and pagodas to house your stockpiles, and statues and sculptures to express your ownership of this vast and pleasant land. It's Lego, if everything in the world was already made of Lego.

Or rather, if everything in the world was already made of Lego and bits of it wanted you dead.

Survival mode is so-called because making it through your first night is an act of courage, ingenuity and luck. Minecraft's day cycle is ten or so minutes long, and as the sun sets squarely in the sea, and the stars prick through the sky, the nightlife turns nasty.

At least, that's what you assume. As daylight fades, night -- real night, not just a cheap palette shift -- spreads across the land. As the darkness spreads, you start to hear noises. New noises. Bad noises. The first time you play, that's probably the last you hear. Something behind you, happening to you, ending you. You'll respawn, blinking in the light of a new dawn, having learned little but fear.

Now -- with no NPC, with no dialogue pop-up -- the game has given you your first mission. Find shelter. Survive the night. And so, with new resolve, I set about building a house. I was still too green in the ways of Minecraft to watch the sun to gauge the time, so I squandered too much of the day collecting timber and earth. It was already dusk by the time I started to build.

It should have been simple -- walls two blocks high and a flat roof, but it quickly proved tricky. Two blocks high means you can't reach to attach the roof. One block high means you don't fit in. Quickly now -- the sun melting into a broad glow on the horizon -- build a step, start the roof, jump back down, complete the ridge. Move inside and use your last two blocks to complete the house and tuck myself into safe, impregnable...

Blackness. Not the absence of light but a drowning depth of ink. However dark it is outside is nothing to what I've just made in here. Is it even fully dark outside yet? Maybe I've got time to....but now there's a noise. Some sort of...rattle. A groan. A snuffling, snorting, pressing sort of noise. In the dark. Outside. Outside? Outside. Surely outside.

I realize now that not only do I now know what these monsters look like, I don't know what rules they obey. What game laws -- or even what natural laws.

The snuffling outside is constant now. Can they dig, whatever they are? My hurried house is only made of earth. Why didn't I make the effort to use wood? Unless they can breathe fire, of course.

I feel like all three of the little pigs at once, beset by huffing and puffing and flaming hunger. Whatever it is out there sounds eager to feed.

I hunker back in the dark, trying to get away from the noise but afraid of losing by bearings in the blackness. It's a long time since I've met this in a game: the unknown. No tutorial has told me how to handle this threat. No preview has shown me concept art of it. No genre convention can give me my bearings. It could be anything out there. It could do anything. All I can do is cower in my ramshackle mausoleum and wait for light.

Will it go away at dawn, I wonder? Will it go away ever? Is it an it, or a them? I'm not sure which is scarier, for there to be more than one of it, or for there to be one single thing that could make making all those noises at once. Whatever is out there seems unrelenting -- energetic and tireless.

So tireless, in fact, that the terror is starting to wear off. The noise is familiar now. I don't understand it still, but at least I know it. I'm starting to tune it out. The noise fades from my mind, my screen stays resolutely black. How will I even know when it gets light? What am I going to do between now and then? Maybe I could knock a roof block loose?

My left-mouse-button-finger is getting itchy, and I realize just in time that my two greatest enemies have just arrived: boredom and curiosity. No quicker way of getting killed then succumbing to their charms. With a little smug nod I settle back in my chair. I'm not falling for that.

HIT BEING HIT DAMAGE WHAT IS THAT HELP HIT HIT HIT WHERE HIT. Three hearts have gone. There's something. I'm taking damage. I'm hitting flailing spinning hitting. No idea what's out there. In here. No idea how dangerous it is. No idea if I'm hitting it or if it's still hitting me. Massive adrenalin spike.

Eventually I realize I'm still alive and stop fighting. My health is down but the damage has stopped. Whatever it was, I must have killed it. I'd feel proud, but now I'm just terrified. What was it? How did it get in? Did it spawn inside my house? Can they do that? Are there more?

Tense, I wait and wait and wait. Is it day yet? What if I've already missed it? I try to think how long my first day lasted. I've lost my sense of time as well as my bearings in the fight. I turn, trying to get oriented. I can't. I turn again and move and catch a flash of something tiny. Something white. Something light. Something square.

I stare at it and it gets whiter. And as it gets whiter, I start to see more. Eventually, the geometry resolves. The white square is the sky. A tiny square of sky. It's tiny because it's far away. And it's far away because I'm at the bottom of a 30 foot mine-shaft I accidentally dug when I was flailing at the night fiend. I'd be embarrassed if I wasn't so busy being jubilant. I survived. If I did it once I can do it again. I've earned my place in this world.

Jonathan Smith, at this year's Playful, gave a great talk on the need for directed play, based on lessons he learned working on the Lego Star Wars series. For all that we like the idea of freedom, the reality is that most of us prefer our play to be guided. He could have been outlining Minecraft, which despite often being referred to as an open-ended sandbox, is actually a mission-based RPG.

And one of the cleverest RPGs in a long while, at that. Minecraft initially delivers its missions as an anti-tutorial. The game -- still in alpha after all -- has no tutorial, no tips, no manual. You arrive in the world totally ignorant of how it works.

But you've arrived there because you've seen screenshots and heard stories. You know extraordinary buildings and contraptions are possible, and closing the gap between those fantasies, and the reality of your powerless arrival in the game is what guides your progress through those first hours. It's fear, uncertainty and doubt elevated to design principles.

It could be overwhelming, but the dependency structure within the game assures that it's not. I need wood to make a crafting table, I need a table to make a pick, I need a pick to get stone, I need stone to get coal. The tech tree becomes the mission structure, as I seek out each thing to get the next, each a manageable, discrete task.

And each task I complete levels me up, not by adding a number to my profile, but by changing what I have in my pockets. You are what you carry. Your tools, armor, and supplies are what let you accomplish more and die less. When death does come, you lose everything you carry -- often permanently -- and revert to the helpless state in which you arrived in the game.

Chests -- which store the resources you've amassed -- therefore become save points. How many you make and where you put them starts to become a natural, player-controlled difficulty modifier. It's a system which allows Minecraft to avoid the monotony which many RPGs fall prey to, where your progress in the world is cancelled out by the world leveling up to match your increased power.

In Minecraft, the threat the world poses stays largely static, but your own level fluctuates up and down as you gain and lose possessions. It means I'm as likely to encounter that desperate frisson of my first frightening night ten hours in as ten minutes in.

All these design decisions enforce play imperatives which take you through the first few hours of play. It means that when the sandbox possibilities do start to open up -- of building and exploring (I'm told it would take six years of real time to walk around a full Minecraft world) you are deeply embedded into the world. You have a skill-set, a sense of ownership and belonging, which fuel you through the challenge of free, creative play. And that's crucial, because free, creative play is actually quite a grueling prospect, full of the pain and effort of making and losing.

I've loved watching the buzz build on Minecraft, but it's frustrated me that the tone of some of the more mainstream commentary has been "kooky indie game for over-grown Lego fans with OCD makes money through crazy YouTube videos!!!!!" rather than addressing the fact that the game's colossal success is built on an extremely mature and finely-tooled piece of design.

The stories that come out of it -- stories like mine -- don't happen because some over-excited nerds want to revel in the friendly glow of an underdog community rather than be one of a million consumers of a faceless but superbly slick AAA smash-hit. They happen because a good game designer can build an entire new life for his players out of twelve blocks and eight creatures, and a good life at that.

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About the Author(s)

Margaret Robertson


Margaret Robertson is development director for Hide&Seek, a game design studio which uses public spaces and digital platforms to make interesting games for interesting people. Her previous role as an independent consultant enabled her to work on a huge range of projects, from AAA console titles, through download and mobile/ handheld games, to indie and art-house projects. She's worked with brands, broadcasters, and film studios to develop their game strategies, and was part of the team that built the BAFTA-award winning game slate which recently earned Channel 4 the Develop Publishing Hero award. Previously editor of Edge magazine, and part of the team behind the GameCity festival, she is currently a contributing editor for Wired in the UK, and speaks worldwide on game design theory.

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