Minecraft and Genre

Minecraft’s popularity just seems compound itself at a baffling rate.   Especially when few people (if anyone) can really put their finger on what makes it so much fun.  There are plenty of videos of star ships, computers, pig canons, super highways, and castles.  They are super cool to look at, but the compelling nature of Minecraft isn’t observed in the final product.  Going from a terrified little block man, to builder of amazing things is where the magic happens.

Margaret Robertson spends “five minutes” with the game to try and explore what makes that magic happen.  Her description of the first night is right on target, if a bit lengthy for describing how she made a box to sit in and accidentally dug herself into into a cave.  But that’s why Minecraft is a game and not literature.  It’s exciting, but awkward to put into words.  The confusion she conveys is also spot on.  There is no real indication of how the fundamentals of the game work, or what you should expect.

I can’t think of any way where having an in-game tutorial would be would be appropriate, but having a reference to the Minecraft Wiki ahead of time makes all of the difference.   I could see where having a game manual that comes along it would make a world of difference.  Just a bit of primer, like you would see with the 8, and 16-bit era games that couldn’t technically include in-game tutorials. (Dear Notch: Please make a Minecraft box/manual, even just a digital copy.  I would pay money for it, in addition to the game’s price.)

The most interesting point in the Gamasutra piece would have to be Robertson’s thought that “despite often being referred to as an open-ended sandbox, [Minecraft] is actually a mission-based RPG.”

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.

It makes enough sense based on the definitions we’ve given for video game genres.  But it feels so counter-intuitive that the concept of genre in Minecraft loses its meaning.  And while I’d agree that the mechanics which have been implemented in the game are mature and well planned, I don’t know if Notch was thinking about how Minecraft would be a clever twist on RPGs.  Minecraft is just Minecraft.  Which is to say it is great, regardless of what genres it might resemble.

If you’re still trying to understand what the deal is with Minecraft, then Robertson’s post will take you a long way in understanding it.  But the best way to figure it out is to just play it.


4 Responses to “Minecraft and Genre”

  1. October 26, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    I’m curious if you’ve played Dwarf Fortress, which seems like Minecraft’s alcoholic bitter old uncle. It’s got some some really deep strategy, and some genre-bending aspects as well, but its popularity is limited by the insane learning curve, obtuse interface, and notion that “losing is fun.”

  2. 2 Peter Shafer
    October 27, 2010 at 12:19 am

    For the reasons you’ve listed, I haven’t been brave enough to get into Dwarf Fortress. My good friend Francis (@Raisins on twitter) plays it quite a lot. I’ve watched him play it a bit, and he’s explained it to me, but I just haven’t gotten past the “losing is fun” part. He’s the one that also got me into Minecraft as well. At least with Minecraft, if I die, I will only lose my inventory. And unless something really catches me off guard, I am pretty good about putting my stuff some place safe if I’m at risk.

    What amazes me about Dwarf Fortress is despite the interface and complexity, the user base for the game is so dedicated. I think I remember hearing that the guy behind it makes enough money to live on and continue developing it.

  3. October 27, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    One of the interesting similarities is the share-ability. Minecraft has blown up thanks to youtube videos, and Dwarf Fortress has a number of epic shared-play forum games (For example: Boatmurdered: http://lparchive.org/LetsPlay/Boatmurdered/) that makes the emergent storyline into something social and shared, to the point where people are making drawings of legendary artifacts forged in Boatmurdered, depicting the great elephant slaughter of 1065 or other such craziness.

    I do admit to using a tileswap to make things look a tad better, and running the “Dwarf Therapist” utility to keep track of who knows how to make potash and so forth. There are still frustrating moments, like when half of my crops withered on the vine because my dwarves weren’t harvesting it, despite the fact that I cancelled all their other jobs. (Turned out I needed to make more spaces for stockpiling food.) In a way, this method of trial-and-error figuring things out and tolerance for the stupidly hard is like old nintendo.

  4. 4 Peter Shafer
    October 27, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    I do love how in Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress how the risk for (entertaining) catastrophe can scale with the player’s ambition. From that perspective, I can understand the “when you lose, you win” mentality that seems to be a prerequisite for DF a bit better.

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