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Five Minutes Of... Minecraft

October 21, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[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.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Barry Russell
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You have put into words what I could not, though I did try in my article for my school newspaper, your's is much better. Great job!

Kriss Daniels
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Its like explaining a Yo-Yo craze by talking about the qualities of the Yo-Yo.

Learning everything about Yo-Yos will teach you nothing about what is really going on.

Its the reverse problem of someone who eats the menu.

You are reading the food and then patting yourself on the back for being a smart reader rather than a dumb eater.

That said there are some interesting things about minecrafts success, you are just too much of an idiot to understand what they are.

Jacek Wesolowski
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The article is mostly about one person's individual experience with the game (and its phenomenon), rather than the sources of Minecraft's success.

I found the article interesting, I enjoyed the format, and I think it's useful. Particularly because it's written from a player's perspective, but in a fairly self-aware fashion. The author describes the feelings associated with playing Minecraft, but also tries to give them specific names, which is so much better than "I like / I don't like it".

I hope one day someone writes an article like this about my game(s). Thumbs up for serious game criticism!

John Currie
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Sadly, the lack of clarity in your comment led me to not understand any of it, saving the part where you stated that the article's author is an "idiot" - leading me to apply this conclusion to you rather than the intended target. On the other hand, the article itself is very easy to understand and presented its ideas very clearly - leading me to want to play the game and see this for myself.

Mark Venturelli
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The article is great and you are an idiot.

Or what John Currie said, way more eloquently than I could.

Victor Gont
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You sir are an extraordinary troll specimen; I take my hat off to you.

As for the article, this is what I would like to see passed as a game review (Kotaku does this to a point) instead of the washed-up point-based system.

Tim Carter
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Victor, that is absolutely classic.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Joseph Larson
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Doggone that registration process. All so I can say this:

I find it interesting the way you refer to design choices like this is the experience Notch had in mind when developing the game. This is a pre-beta game. I don't think this isn't the game that Notch had in mind at all. He's spoken of Goblin villages and things that he wants to put in the game eventually. What if the game starts in a human village where you have a safe place to stay the night automatically? In fact earlier builds had you starting in a house. Now he could easily motivate the current survival mode by having a shipwreck scenario, but the point is what has become everyone first experience with minecraft may not have been "decided" as much as, as with everything around minecraft it seems, emergent.

Love the article. Huddling in the dark, waiting for morning. I didn't box myself completely in, I left a little hole so I could see the day, but yeah, I felt it.

Jasmine Hegman
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Great article and great response! I had a similar line of thought due to watching a video by an ex-Beastie Boy the other day and his love for Reason. Ends up "You have to fight for the right to party" was 100% a joke against idiotic frat-boys -- they themselves were blown away by how it was received. He recounted that at a concert he began to love it - no more as a joke, but now a serious thing worth fighting for.

I wonder how Notch must feel - especially after reading about the people who DDoS'd his server - he has this game he wanted to make, Goblin villages and all, but now he has a demanding user base that wants what THEY think this game should be. I don't know what I would do in such a situation, I guess it depends too much on the intricacies of each one. Perhaps he can go for a mixture of both?

Or maybe it will be like most artists whose art continues to evolve while their produced art (albums/songs) remain static. The fans are listening on repeat to old artwork, and thus cause resistance when time is nullified and they are assaulted with the artist's new, unexpected evolutions in taste. As a result some fans will denounce, new fans will come in and enjoy both, and new fans will come in and denounce the old.

I don't know if this article really showed any design secrets to Minecraft's 'magic', but I think it did a great job of detailing what a good game can (should?) cause in a player. Bravo! :)

Wyatt Epp
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This is actually a really good point. However, like all games, what Notch set out to create is certainly far different from what he has created. As time goes on, ideas are refined and goals change.

What you've been playing is a snapshot in this process of refinement. Each distinct snapshot has been made deliberately and with the best of intentions for the sake of improving the game, the code written and compiled by Notch himself for the purpose of movement toward his goal. So that you no longer start in a house seems to point to a deliberate decision to move toward a world of hostility and danger. The hints he's given on the Halloween update support that he's raising the "level cap" on mastering the game world.

Every designer likewise has what I call a "feature creep list" (at least, I'm pretty sure they do); a list of things that they'd like to add and do if possible and time permits (you should look at Tarn Adams' list. It's like twelve pages or something). I'd put Goblin (or, indeed, any other) villages in this category for the time being. (I'm not willing to discount it completely; he loves procedural challenges).

My first real experience came after reading the Minecraft primer on...Wired, was it? So my first night was survived fairly well. However, I died soon after; a tempering of my respect for the world. The addition of difficult enemies and the hell dimension makes me feel like he's trying to add fear back to the game for experienced players.

Tom Armitage
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It's worth remembering that by having a public alpha process, a developer's goals and desires might likely change. So: by putting this game out in an alpha state, Notch gets to discover both what's broken, but also what people *enjoy* doing.

Will that stop him returning to the wishlist he wrote when Minecraft was a blank slate? Unlikely - there's probably good stuff on there. Should he ignore what he's learning from the current userbase? Definitely not.

That doesn't mean a developer should do what users say; user feedback is not about users saying "WE WANT [X]", and then giving them [x]. It's about understanding what the _meaning_ of what they're saying is. The currenty feature-list for the October release emphasies both survival and combat - the more gamelike elements that were less refined than the world-engine - but also gives players new opportunities to shape and explore the world. Which seems like a fair balance of where the game is heading, and what the community enjoy.

I could agree with Jasmine's points easier if this wasn't an open alpha, but a straight-up preview to a traditional games journalist, who'd be able to disagree with what he was shown. But by entering into an open Alpha, and setting Minecraft into the world, Notch has entered a kind of bargain with his players. He's still got final say, but the shaping of the game is now more collaborative than it was. Sadly, it doesn't seem that the audience understand quite how alpha the game is, or quite what the scale of their stake in the game is (ie: it's much lower than they think). The recent DDOS was a sad state of affairs all things considered.

In short: what's going on is one of the interesting problems of building things in public. Some days it's just interesting; some days it's just problematic. But refinement and iteration are very different processes when you have an audience.

Gabe McGrath
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I would dearly love to play this game.

But my time is limited - I've got a child to look after, articles to write, a busy real job, and a house to keep.

I KNOW... if I start Minecraft, I'll have to play it from 11pm->3am instead of sleeping.

Sadly, that won't work.

Lovely game. When my life is quieter, I'll give it a go.

Rob Allegretti
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Well said.

Anyone who doubts the awesomeness of Minecraft should look up the videos of the 1:1 scale model of the NCC 1701-A Enterprise, or the complete 16-bit Arithmetic Logic Unit built entirely with torches and gunpowder (there's another that uses light somehow);

Jacob Corum
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As several others have already stated we need to start viewing games not as a general and static experience, but as unique story from the potent perspective of an individual. This article gets it done. Bravo.

Bart Stewart
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Another wonderful story-based approach to explaining Minecraft is Quentin Smith's five-part experience over on Rock Paper Shotgun: .

Highly recommended.

Sam Hero
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i still dont understand why minecraft is this successful.

there clearly is no end objective.

so what if i built an epic castle in the friends cant visit it, i cant do battle with it, only i my own eyes see the hundreds-of-hours-spent-mining-to-get-that-many-blocks of castle i built.

and then what.

Bart Stewart
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Sam, as Stephen says in the next comment, games can be like music.

One person might like classical music; another person might prefer deathmetal or pop.

You might not like jazz yourself. But why isn't it OK for jazz music to exist for the people who do enjoy it?

It's the same for games. If someone likes a game that makes it easy for them to create their own fun, then when they're done building one thing, they can build something else. And that's fun for them whether anybody else sees it or not.

(Although, for what it's worth, you *can* build things with friends in MineCraft.)

David Fried
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You miss the point of most really good games. The journey. The fun of discovery. Of being immersed in something new and different.

Minecraft also gives people the joy of creation in a very simple way. It's the same reason Farmville is a success despite being pretty much game design garbage in my opinion.

Stephen Toth
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Extremely compelling article! I've been toying with the idea of downloading this, only because I have so many other games going at the present time, but now they may be put on hold. The game sounds intense for a designer's curiosity; simple yet sophisticated, like Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk at the ivories.