Saturday, 19 November 2011


Post-Launch Review
Developer: Mojang
Publisher: Mojang
Released: May 17 2009 (public alpha) / November 18 2011 (1.0 release)

If you haven't heard of Minecraft, you haven't been following video games. Minecraft is a sandbox adventure game in a randomly generated world made of cubes. Initially your goal is simply to survive the monsters that come out at night, but as you explore and harvest resources you begin to set your own goals, such as building massively complex castles and strongholds. Minecraft is essentially a survival and exploration game where the world is made of LEGO.

Minecraft doesn't really fit into my normal “At Launch” and “Post Launch” categories. It started development by Markus “Notch” Persson with the first build released to the public on May 17 2009. Minecraft underwent public alpha, moving to public beta on December 20 2010. As development continued and sales climbed, Notch added to the dev team and founded Mojang. Only weeks before the official 1.0 release was set to launch at the first-ever Minecon, Minecraft sold its four millionth copy. Most remarkably, Minecraft's spread was entirely word-of-mouth with zero advertising budget, making it easily the most successful independent game ever.

The Good
This is the main selling point of Minecraft. The sheer level of freedom and possibility is almost absurd. Once you've established a foothold in your world, you can build nearly anything you can imagine. There's a whole culture of replica-building, or giant-object building — there are videos on YouTube of scale models of the USS Enterprise, or ongoing team projects replicating real-world cities, or the entire world of the original Pokemon games.
There's an entire subsection of this culture based around redstone, the game's electrical wiring system. There are instructional videos on how to build retractable hidden staircases or doors that emerge from behind waterfalls or how to play Bohemian Rhapsody (or other songs) using the game's note blocks. Most ridiculously, someone built a functional 8-bit computer core in Minecraft.
Essentially, once you get a handle on how the game works, Minecraft becomes whatever you want it to be. It's like being given a planet and infinity LEGOs.

Huge World
Minecraft's terrain generator creates an infinite world. Whoah.
Okay, I'll give you more than just that one line. The terrain generation is surprisingly complex — there are biomes with different vegetation, climate, and topography. There are ravines, both above ground and below ground, that cut across the landscape. There are abandoned mines and NPC villages. There are two parallel dimensions accessible through portals: the Nether, a hellish landscape of fire and lava where travel distance is magnified by a factor of 16; and the End, home of the Endermen and the fearsome Ender Dragon. The world is measured in 1-meter cubes — the vertical height is 256 cubes with sea level at 128, allowing for tall mountains and deep caverns.

Unique Monsters
Minecraft's most iconic monster, the Creeper, has become well known for its tendency to silently sneak up on players and explode, annihilating large chunks of their creations. Hilariously enough, its origin is as a horribly failed attempt to make a pig model. The more recently introduced Endermen are tall, spindly black creatures that are perfectly content to wander around peacefully, occasionally stealing blocks — until you make eye contact, at which point they begin to teleport and attack from behind. There are also standard zombies and archer skeletons, and some interesting monsters in the game's parallel dimensions, but the Creeper and the Endermen are the standouts.

Intuitive Crafting
For the most part, there's a surprisingly simple logic to the crafting system: arrange ingredients in the shape of the thing you're trying to craft. For example, a 2x3 grid of wood makes a door. Two vertical 3x1 lines of iron with sticks in the middle makes rails. Three sheets of paper stacked on top of each other makes a book. Laying out iron in an inverted U makes a helmet.

Long-Term Goals
Some of the high-end, long-term goals in Minecraft include potion brewing and item enchanting, which give the player access to damage resistances and special abilities such as improved mining speed and greater attack power. Once the player has gained access to the Nether and crafted Eyes of Ender, they earn a reliable method of finding strongholds — ruins hidden far away from the spawn point, containing treasure, monsters, a boss, and ultimately a portal to the End. In the End the player can fight the mighty Ender Dragon, a beast that can phase through terrain destroying any block it touches. Defeating the Ender Dragon yields a massive XP reward and is currently the final goal of Minecraft; however, defeating the Ender Dragon does not end the game, and the player can continue to explore and build.
I'd made a suggestion for an endgame goal -- the Necromancer -- but I guess it won't be implemented now. Oh well.

Minecraft has a huge modding community. Mods range from simple texture packs that will add a new appearance to the game, to water mods that add realistic reflections and ripples, to new creatures and features, all the way up to adding entire new dimensions with their own independent crafting trees and progression. In Minecraft, if you can think it, then you can do it — and if you can't, there's a mod for that.

The Neutral
Some players complain that Minecraft has poor graphics. I understand that graphics are a major issue for some people. On the other hand, graphics are not what's important about Minecraft. It's like complaining that Kirby's Epic Yarn isn't realistic enough — it's just not the point. Further, given Minecraft's basis in cubes, it's essentially impossible to change things much without rewriting the entire game engine. There are plenty of high-res texture mods out there, so if it's really an issue, you can download some of those. For many people, the simple graphics are part of the game's charm. Maybe when you load up the game you'll think “this looks so old” but when you get to playing you'll quickly forget about it.

The Bad
No Tutorial
Minecraft has an achievement system which more or less functions as a (very basic) tutorial. The problem is that Minecraft has such a bewildering number of features and crafting recipes that it's hard to imagine a player discovering everything without the assistance of the wiki. The 1.0 release expanded on the achievements, adding new ones for some of the more complex late-game goals, but some problems remain. For example, if I've never been exposed to Minecraft before I started playing, without looking it up on the wiki, how would I know that redstone functions as electrical wire, and that combining redstone with a stick makes a “torch” that provides power to a circuit? How much can the average player  be expected to discover on their own?
This is a more difficult issue than it seems, however — a significant portion of the player base is perfectly content to experiment and discover on their own, and Minecraft's crafting system is intuitive enough that many items are easily crafted without any help.

Terrain Generation
This is more of a nitpick than a real complaint In previous versions of Minecraft, terrain generation and biome generation were different things — you could have a desert mountain range, or a flat rainforest. In more recent versions, terrain generation and biome generation have been tied together — you rarely get mountains outside of mountain biomes, and no more than gentle hills in most others. Deserts and swamps are the flattest biomes.
This change makes the terrain less interesting to explore. If it's not a mountain biome, you're fairly unlikely to see interesting terrain structures. It's pretty disappointing. At the very least, there should be a bit more variability allowed in terrain generation, so that sometimes you DO get mountains or cliffs in a forest.

The Verdict
Recommendation: Play it.
Minecraft is so unique that it almost has to be experienced. Every Minecraft world is unique, from terrain generation to player input — no two players will have the same experience playing Minecraft. And seriously, you really DO have to play it to decide if you like it. Watching someone else play Minecraft is boring. Playing it yourself is incredible. I hate to say things like this, but if you consider yourself a gamer, you really should play Minecraft. 

Every once in a while a game comes along that changes the industry. Minecraft could very well be the next entry in that prestigious collection. Minecraft has succeeded for the sole reason that it's a great game. No advertising at all means that its success is 100% because people thought it was great and told their friends about it. It's redefined what “open world” and “freedom” mean in a video game. If you're skeptical, find a friend who owns the game and start a new world. Play for a couple of hours and then decide what you think.

We've come to expect massive open worlds with lots of freedom. Minecraft is the one that comes closest to true freedom. You're not restricted to the geography the developers programmed, or just the one province in a larger world. You can go anywhere, and you can change anything. Minecraft is what you make of it.

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