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Opinion:  Minecraft  And The Question Of Luck
Opinion: Minecraft And The Question Of Luck
February 3, 2011 | By Tadhg Kelly

February 3, 2011 | By Tadhg Kelly
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More: Indie



[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, London-based lead designer and producer Tadhg Kelly looks at the indie PC hit Minecraft, taking a close look at what makes the unusual title such a success.]

Minecraft is a game that makes industry heads spin. Its developer is on the way to becoming a superstar, itís generating huge sales for an indie game, and yet it's the nerdiest game that has been seen for years. Many insiders have quietly concluded that the game is just lucky-- a non-repeating event, a freak of nature.

If itís not lucky, then cats will lie with dogs and gravity is inverted. Everything that we think we know, we actually wouldnít know. The truth is that Minecraft is not a freak of nature. Itís a harbinger of the shape of things to come.

What Minecraft Is

In case youíve never heard of it, Minecraft is a game in which you mine for blocks of materials, and then use them to build structures. There are several kinds of material with which you can work, and some of them have interesting properties such as illumination, explosion or conduction.

You can also combine objects to create other objects, or play collaboratively over the Internet to build larger structures. The game also has a day/night cycle that brings out zombies at night to attack you.

It shares a heritage with several other fortress-construction games such as Dungeon Keeper and Dwarf Fortress. The major innovation is the constant use of a first person perspective, which gives the player the feeling of movement and direct action in the world.

Itís fun and has inspired some players to create truly elaborate structures including a Starship Enterprise, a scale model of the Earth, a replica of the Vatican and Ė most impressively Ė a working virtual microprocessor of sorts.

It has also acquired a very loyal following. The gameís developer, Markus Persson, or ďNotch,Ē has acquired 85,000 followers on Twitter, and the game has sold a million copies. So it is, by any measure, a success.

The Puzzle of Minecraft

So why is this game such a puzzle to understand? Well there are a number of reasons:

1. Itís a Bare Bones PC Download

It doesnít install, doesnít use Steam, and isnít an app. It just downloads an exe file that you cut and paste to your desktop. It trips your Windows Firewall when you open it with one of those messages about being wary of downloading files from the Internet. Most users are not really used to software being this raw, and certainly no normal game developer would ever consider delivering their game in this fashion.

2. You Need a User ID

Its website, where you might find out how to get a user ID, looks like something from the dawn of the web. Even Notchís own page on the companyís site contains absolutely no graphics whatsoever and it just simple HTML. If you do try to play the game without an ID, itís not too helpful in directing you in what to do. Traditionally, all these factors should serve to make users less trustful, but Minecraft has over 3 million registered accounts.

3. You Buy It With PayPal

Many meetings devoted to revenue have become the norm for online game companies. Handling of consumer payments, providing opportunities to purchase, increasing conversion and so on are increasingly important strategic decisions that require many spreadsheets, PowerPoint decks, metrics and talking to sort out. Or you could just use PayPal.

Notchís solution was to do exactly that and then forget about it while he got on with making his game. It was up to customers to figure it out and pay, and when they did flood in PayPal got so spooked by the volume of transactions that they actually suspected he was laundering money and temporarily shut him down.

This makes absolutely no sense according to experts on how to drive online monetization because PayPal is supposed to be off-putting and crude. The terrifying prospect for many a billing specialist in a variety of publishers is that it more or less implies that their jobs are actually redundant.

4. There Is No User Introduction

In most games, your first session involves the game leading you by the nose to introduce you to the game actions, loops and the main dynamic in a friendly fashion. You get a sense of the game slowly, and so become immersed.

In Minecraft, you land in the middle of a blocky world with no instructions whatsoever. Itís basically up to you to figure out what to do, so you wander around, click stuff, figure out the controls and nothing really seems to happen for a while. Minecraft is quite happy for you to do the work rather than create a user journey or a tutorial.

Once you eventually figure out that click-and-hold is used to dig, right-click is used to place blocks, and youíve probably killed yourself once or twice by having blocks fall on your head, you sort of get it. You eventually realize that the numbers on your keyboard switch between different blocks that youíve dug, and it dawns on you that maybe you can build almost anything. Which you do until it gets dark and something attacks and kills you.

The gameís initial half hour is very trial-and-error based, and it isnít particularly forgiving when you do make a mistake. Death comes quickly to the unwary. All of these are supposed to be design fails in any normal sense of the word, and yet they havenít slowed the enthusiasm for Minecraft at all.

5. The Graphics Are Basic

When you enter the game it is replete with brown textures. The button styles and menus lack any hint of sophistication and are rendered with a font last seen in 1993ís Frontier. Almost everything in Minecraft is a block. Cows are cubic, the landscape is like Lego, and the texturing on these objects is crude, consisting of pixelated 16x16 faces.

Thereís no concession to anything fancy. The lovingly crafted user interface, sound effects and other typical elements into which game developers pour excessive time and effort are absent. Minecraft is quite happy to be as simple as it can with all of these elements and fly in the face of accepted thinking about production standards, etc.

6. There Was No Publicity

The first time that many of us heard of Minecraft was when the PayPal story surfaced in the gaming news. The story had three reactions: Firstly that it was a game that nobody official had ever heard of. Second, that it was still in its alpha version. Third, that it had coined $750,000 from nowhere.

It quite literally did not compute for a lot of game executives. In the regular industry there must be high quality visuals, trailers, visits to E3, previews with wide-eyed journalists and all the other trappings of publicity in order to attract interest. Minecraft was just uploaded to the web. It formed a community by itself, so much so that Notch could sell the alpha (extremely buggy and unfinished) version of the game for $15 a go.

7. There Is No Publishing Layer

Publishing adds packaging (if itís a disc), press materials, QA, previews, reviews, handles administration, legal, branding and sundry other costs. The list can go on and on.

Minecraft has only more recently formed a company at all (the cryptically named Mojang) which seems to consist of a couple of Notchís friends in an office in Stockholm. About the most that theyíve done in terms of traditional publishing has been to transfer the gameís servers to the Amazon cloud for stability purposes, and tweeted honestly about it to apologize for network outages and to explain whatís going on.

Everything else they do has a distinctly more personal feel to it compared with the traditional arms-length community-manager approach of publishing that hates revealing weakness.

8. It Has Technical Hurdles

Want to play multiplayer? Find the IP address of a multiplayer server. And by find I mean go to Google or Minecraft.net and search for server numbers. Of course many users are barely aware of what IP addresses are, and why they might be important, so this process would simply be beyond them. And to any normal publisher, that would be beyond the pale.

Why Does Minecraft Work?

The first reason is that it is a solid game. The balance of activity versus threat, the ability to create almost anything that you can imagine, and the charm of the gameís blocky style all capture attention and imagination. Itís a game of experimentation and creativity that frequently delivers many small wins to the player, but without being brash about it, and in doing so it tends to form at least a connection level of engagement in the player.

The second reason is that the game encourages sharing. While many games have level creation packs and the ability for a community to pass content to other players, Minecraft users share their creations far and wide through Youtube. Because those creations are sometimes newsworthy in and of themselves (such as the microprocessor), high virality for the game was attained.

Virality is best served when fans can participate in the story and live it. Sharing of content is one of the most powerful ways to do that, especially when what you have created is so elaborate. This also creates a need for Minecraft players to work together (and so overcome the IP address barrier) to help make grand projects. A community forms, and their output serves as endless opportunities for the marketing story of Minecraft to be told again to the uninitiated.

Thirdly, the game has an anti-market streak. In a famous sketch in which he asks marketing people to kill themselves, Bill Hicks lambasts their logic. He realizes that while listening to him, they are actually thinking, "Oh he's going after the anti-marketing dollar. That's a huge dollar, look at our research!" which sends him into a fit of apoplexy. Heís begging for authenticity.

CrunchGear thinks that Minecraft is a bit like that, but for games. In an article about why Minecraft is important, Devin Coldewey writes "The Humble Indie Bundle, World of Goo, Braid, and a number of other extremely low-budget titles have electrified the gaming community, while games with millions in marketing budget like APB and Kane & Lynch fall flat on their face critically and commercially. Gamer discontent with these barren blockbusters is palpable, and Minecraft is the new poster boy for it."

I think this is partially true, but itís placing too much faith in the power of a negative story. Negative stories usually donít sell games. Positive marketing stories do (which is why meta-games regularly become a hot topic) and the market expresses its negativity in simply not purchasing, or its agreement in doing so.

So the fourth, and most important, reason why Minecraft works is that it affirms and resonates with a market. That market is often ignored, still has the image of the sweaty unkempt gamer, revels in being uncool and takes its particular tastes in games very seriously. Minecraft is the honey for the PC gamer hive.

Rock Paper Shotgun is a gaming blog. It is written by some of the best British gaming journalists, and according to the site has a monthly readership of around 800,000 unique users. Its readership is also very active, with most posts generating at least 30 or 40 comments. The difference between RPS and other sites like Kotaku or Eurogamer is that it self-identifies as being only for PC gamers. It is not looking to be a game news site, but rather a rallying point for PC gamers.

Gamers are tribal around their chosen platforms, and RPS plays right into that by sharing news stories and exciting coverage about PC games to a motivated readership. The same sort of readership that used to buy magazine stalwarts PC Zone and PC Gamer are the sort of culture that they have tapped into. This makes RPS a compelling loudspeaker for PC game marketing stories, especially those that seem honest and authentic to the scene.

To say that Rock Paper Shotgun went absolutely bananas for Minecraft is an understatement. They could not stop talking about the game for weeks. The resulting excitement in the community spilled over into other sites, and that contributed significantly to the game becoming the breakout hit that it was.

Minecraft worked because it resonated with the PC gamer tribe, and they spread its story in turn. It is the marketing story that they want to engage with because the game is good, the art style is one that resonates with their cultural values (old school, low-fi and quirky), the technical barriers to playing the game are a badge of honor, and they have the ability to share their creations. A guy like Notch with his HTML site and his 16x16 texture sensibilities appeals very directly to this tribe, especially those who are indie game developers themselves.

He passes the authenticity test because he is one of them and comes from the same sort of background that they do.

Was Notch Lucky?

Not at all. Luck is momentary. What Notch is is aligned to his tribe. Like many a programmer, he very clearly has old school sensibilities about what matters and what does not, and his game places him as one of the leaders of that tribe. While itís fair to say that any idea definitely needs a bit of luck to get going, it is wrong to ascribe everything else that follows as Ďluckí. Minecraft is not lucky. It is aligned.

Resonance is a wave brought about by the cultural yearnings of tribes to feel represented, moving forward and part of a movement. It is always on the move. However, the reason that some games get picked up by the wave while others do not is that their marketing story is better aligned. When surfers are waiting for the wave to approach, board positioning is crucial, and itís a similar story with game developers.

Notchís luck was that he came across the idea of doing a first-person fortress building game. His alignment was that the game that he wanted to make was culturally connected to his tribe. While the game may appear ugly, and its purchase process etc seem naive to many a gaming professional, all of those decisions that Notch made along the road to releasing his game were from the point of view of a particular perspective of what games are, what matters and what were the things that he could trust the tribe to figure out for themselves.

His tribe responded and resonated in turn. This game speaks to them. It doesnít really seem to care about being mainstream, and certainly isnít casual. Instead, Notch has found his way into the heart of a particular segment of fans who really care about their PC games and are willing to go the extra mile.

Intentionally or unintentionally, this has made Notch a storyteller in the marketing story of PC games. Heís a leader not just because he made a game, but because heís living the story. Minecraft is authentic to its followers. They have a passion for what he has made, and what they can make with it, share with it and finally what it says about them.

The Next Minecraft Is Not Another Minecraft

Some developers are busily working away on clones of Minecraft and releasing them into other platforms. In the main, these developers are just trying to ride the wave. All they are doing is what developers have often done, which is to try and get to other sections of the market and sell them on features before Minecraft gets there. Theyíre surfing at the back of the wave though, because they donít have a marketing story.

The lesson to take away from Minecraft is not "we should all be making low-fi sandbox games." The lesson is that marketing stories and resonance are increasingly important because the Internet is built to spread them. It doesnít matter whether the market youíre talking about is the casual market, teenage girls or elite gamers, the principles of the story and resonance are oft repeated. Itís about alignment, edgecrafting and moving the story forward.

The next sensation in gaming will definitely not be another Minecraft. It will be something completely different. The interesting aspect of the Internet as a social and search economy is that it tends to both fragment interests but also to award winner status to whichever game of a certain type becomes the go-to version. The game that wins the keyword battle wins.

Specialization, leadership and the ownership of terminology matter, and what this means for the future is that me-too development becomes less and less successful. The multi-franchise old school publisher model of owning many titles across arbitrary genres will slowly decline, to be replaced by the single-franchise publisher that owns its keyword completely.

Mojang has the potential to become a single-franchise publisher, and I hope they do. What Notch and his team need to be focusing on 24/7 for the next decade is more and more Minecraft rather than trying to build a suite of games. Minecraft 2, Minecraft bonus packs, better updates to the server technology, and then perhaps iPhone versions, iPad versions, Mac versions, downloadable console versions and so on are their future.

This is the sort of model that made CCP, Jagex and Rail Simulator the quiet successes that they are, and for many of the same reasons. By having a self-sustaining story that spreads, which the players of the game continue to spread on their own, and a facility for player interaction that bonds the community together around a cause, Minecraft has the potential to run and run. It will be worth $100 million one day.

Minecraft's success, like all success, was initially half chance, but we can expect to see more of this kind of thing as time goes on. The trick is not to make another Minecraft, but instead to find more marketing stories that are likely to spread on their own and then really own that particular specialization as hard as you possibly can.

[An Irish lead designer and producer living in London, Tadhg Kelly is the author of a challenging book about, as he describes it, "Reclaiming games as an art, craft and industry on its own terms", entitled What Games Are. The blog for the book is whatgamesare.com. You can also follow his tweets on Twitter (@tiedtiger).]


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