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Five Minutes Of... Minecraft
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Five Minutes Of... Minecraft

October 21, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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