The Minecraft phenomenon

April 22, 2014

As a giant yellow sun begins to inch over the horizon, I’m standing in an oak tree, working away at its leaves, hoping to catch a falling apple or an oak sapling I can use to start cultivating a forest. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see my buddy Matt crest the hill underneath me. As he approaches, the leaves beneath my feet disappear, and I soar to the ground, meeting it with a crack.

It’s no big deal, though — I’ll merely have a bit of the bread I made earlier and I’ll recover. That’s how it works, in fact, in this glorious, infinite world that is the game and phenomenon of Minecraft.

You would truly have to live in a cave not hear about the game since it arrived in 2009. Originally written by Swedish game developers Markus Persson and Jens Bergensten, Minecraft is a sandbox game written in the Java programming language, playable on all popular operating systems, and recently, game consoles.

Minecraft is unique for many reasons, but its formula of voxel-based, multiplayer-enabled, procedurally generated gameplay struck a chord with gamers in the years following its release, causing an explosion of sales (15 million on the PC platform1), and securing its developer Mojang AB enormous recognition.

A voxel-based game describes a game whose primary task comes as manipulating voxels, discrete points in a three-dimensional space. In Minecraft, a voxel is a moderately sized cube (about half the size of a player) and can take one of many forms: a block of dirt or stone, a pane of glass, or a plant, as examples. Minecraft serves up voxels on an incredible scale — at any given moment, there could be as many as 1.5 million voxels being simulated around the player. Any of these voxels can be interacted with; stone blocks can be mined away by a pickaxe, wood logs can be chopped up with an axe, dirt lifted with a shovel, or farmland tilled by a hoe.

Combine these voxels with a character that can move, jump, and climb, and you have a simulated environment reflecting a more pixelated version of Earth life. (A Minecraft world even has clouds, a day-night cycle, and random episodes of preciptation.) Then add the ability for a player to acquire and replace blocks, and you have a sandbox game — a game not relying on any objectives nor specifying any finite end — that serves as a playground in which a player can explore and build.

The fun of Minecraft doesn’t end there, however. The game defines no spacial boundaries except a height limit (i.e., worlds can stretch infinitely in all four cardinal directions2). Each world is randomly generated, and as the player moves, the world is created ahead of them, complete with terrain features like forests, mountains, rivers, and valleys. The world generation algorithm even sprinkles ore veins deep in the stone underfoot, waiting to be sought out and mined. Any alterations players make to the world are saved to the world file and persist between sessions of play, thus allowing the construction of sprawling cities and towns.

Minecraft gives you the option to play alone or with others over the Internet, by way of a temporary game hosted by one of the players, or (as most Minecraft players do) connect to a central server that runs 24/7. This, as it would turn out, is not the game’s most unique feature, but still its strongest: not only can you explore an endless, constantly evolving world, harvesting resources and building whatever you can imagine, but you can do it with your friends, any time, anywhere you can acquire an Internet connection.

No wonder the game is so popular.

Digital mushroom cows and batcaves

There are some features and design choices in Minecraft that can add a bit of whimsy to the gameplay experience. Some are the product of the computational constraints of the game engine (the underlying software coordinating input, network communication, and other elements like physics and animation), while other features seem to spring from the playful minds of their creators.

I’m herding a cohort of bright red cows, using wheat as a lure to guide them into a pen that Matt has constructed at the base of a sloping hill. These cows are special — known as mooshrooms — because they support the growth of stout red mushrooms on their backs. The mushrooms usually only grow in dark, damp environments (for example, in an underground cave), but Matt and I have discovered a small purple island where mushrooms grow above ground and the mooshrooms roam. Being considerably rare, these mushroom islands are coveted not only because of their unique appearance, but also because mooshrooms are an infinite source of food3.

Minecraft allows play in three modes: creative, survival, and hardcore. Creative is the simplest: players have the ability to place or destroy any block they wish, can fly freely, and are not at risk of death. Survival is the most popular: players begin in a random location and must seek out food and shelter. In survival mode, players are at risk of death by starvation, drowning, suffocation, falling from heights, or at the hands of a hostile creature or enemy player. Survival mode also allows for a custom level of difficulty that controls the amount of time a player may go before eating, the ability of a player to survive a fall or attack, and the skill of computer-controlled hostiles. Hardcore mode is survival mode, locked at the most difficult setting, and enforces the consequence that, if the player dies, the world is immediately deleted (seemingly to simulate real-life deaths).

Matt and I play survival on the hard difficulty, wherein survival is most difficult, but our world does not self-destruct if either of us dies. (If we do die, we appear again at our home base, without any of the materials we were holding prior to death.) We have been playing Minecraft together for over three years, which is remarkable considering our streaks with other games do not last more than a couple months.

Over the years, we have founded settlements, built villages, and tunneled to create mineshafts and subways. Our Minecraft experience spans at least six distinct worlds (though we have not come close to exploring any one of them in full). The first world we explored was set in creative mode; there, our first build consisted of an underground lair (we called it the “batcave”), the underwater access to which was obscured by a small decoy island. From there we explored north and east, building a railway station at the center of the world (which we called “the nexus”). The nexus, a towering structure built of stone bricks and wood, functioned rather like a community center and fortress, featuring several basement floors supporting teleporters linked to notable locations not accessible by rail.

To the west of the nexus (accessible via the red line railway from Nexus Station), Matt flattened a several hundred-voxel square area to make room for a sprawling city, with smooth stone roads, each given a name. He built skyscrapers out of iron blocks, apartment buildings from brick, and office buildings of glass. Painstakingly connected is each building to a network of electronic alarm systems, such that if any one signals distress, a light corresponding to the building flickers on in the police station.

The city came to be known as New Sydney, and it became our first real experience in building to scale. Of course, building New Sydney in survival mode would have been a virtual impossibility, given that each block of iron forming a huge, 600-block high skyscraper would take well over 200,000 bits of iron ingot. Each iron ingot would be formed by smelting one iron ore block in a furnace, and each iron ore block would have been mined out of the ground, 30 or so blocks below sea level. Even with a considerably large mineshaft constructed, finding an iron ore block is a rare occasion (we usually acquire about six or seven iron ore blocks every half-hour). Instead, our decision to play in creative mode at the outset allowed us to instantly place as many iron blocks as we liked.

Creative mode, after New Sydney, did not pose enough of a challenge for us. Having experimented with most block types and acquired a sense of familiarity with the structure of the world, we dove into survival mode, where we found mining, farming and building shelters to be delightfully tedious tasks4. We learned about the game’s crafting system, whereby players can take resources (e.g., iron ingots) and transform them into other blocks or tools (e.g., iron doors or helmets). Out of necessity, we began to memorize the most-used recipes — for example, the recipe for crafting a pickaxe. Each block mined using a pickaxe wears away its durability value until the tool finally breaks and disappears from the player’s inventory; after that, a new pickaxe must be constructed.

In survival mode, a player’s objectives are somewhat finer, or at least more short-term. Finding a source of food is always important. Shelter next, then resources like ores and coal. After a couple hours’ worth of play in one area, players grow self-sufficient with a home, fields of wheat, vegetable gardens (when feasible), and a mineshaft or two. Then, with the resources hoarded, players decide to build, acquire rare goods, or explore. Part of what makes Minecraft so compelling is what begins to unfold after a settlement becomes self-sufficient.

Virtual pixel nations

On public Minecraft servers, settlements of one group can transform into communities of multiple; players using text chat to communicate with others can hold votes, make organizational decisions, or elect leaders. Some public servers manage additional social resources, like forums or voice chat systems like Mumble, that exist outside the Minecraft software itself. Additionally, each server adopts its own rules: due to the open-ended nature of the game, some servers will attempt to prevent players from destroying others’ settlements or stealing their possessions.

Disagreements over territory or philosophy can even incite wars — though in Minecraft, wars are not likely to be fought in battles. If a server runs continuously, players from different time zones may not be online to participate at once. Even within time zones, players have their own schedules in real life. This can often fragment an incorporated state and make it difficult to reign.

If a server decides not to enforce any rules whatsoever (except, perhaps, anti-cheating measures5), vagrant bands of terrorists often form, with the prime goal of destroying others’ work and generally unleashing havoc. These groups are called griefers, presumably after the grief they cause to innocent players — and a server with no rules can become infested with them. Griefing behaviors are often memetic, as well: it can sometimes cause the bitter end of a server if players jump on the griefing bandwagon and eventually deem the world too far gone to be salvaged. (In this case, the world itself may be reset, giving players a fresh start.)

In effect, the social structures that Minecraft can support are still fundamentally virtual. Though this doesn’t stop it from being fun. Unlike other video games that potentially expose younger players to violent or hypersexual content, Minecraft is about as benign as possible ahead of becoming boring, while still retaining the ability to entertain. (Players can construct swords or bows & arrows — but the game depicts no blood nor gore, and the majority of players will use those weapons in self-defense.)

Sunsets of #ffd700

As far as I’m concerned, there will never be a game quite like Minecraft. Recent attempts have been made to replicate the game’s success, with game titles like Terraria that attempt to reproduce its visual style or other games like Rust that pursue success with the constructive, multiplayer survival premise. These games have the potential to rise in popularity, but Minecraft has already cleared its way to becoming a historical milestone.

There is much more to be said about the game and its creators (including, and especially, the game’s unbelievably excellent soundtrack by C418), but I’ll have to leave that to another time. My wheat is almost grown, and there’s much more to be cultivated.

  1. As of April 29, 2014. 

  2. Of course, since a computer’s disk space is not finite, there must be an upper limit to world size. As it turns out, the game developers have limited the expansion to about 30 million voxels in all directions from the coordinate considered the origin. By my calculations, this is a distance traversable by a fast-moving player in about 1,500 hours — over two months straight of holding down the W key on the keyboard! 

  3. While many other food sources might be considered infinite (e.g., having one seed allows for the growth of wheat, out of which more seeds should drop with relatively high probability), mooshrooms are the only truly infinite source, as long as a player has a wooden bowl. Players can right-click on a mooshroom with a bowl to have it filled with mushroom stew — and this may be done any number of times. 

  4. There’s something to be said about how easy it is to take pleasure in the most mundane or repetitious tasks in Minecraft; I cannot quite describe why. 

  5. Though rare, it is possible for clever hackers to reverse-engineer the Minecraft code to send malicious or false data back to the server. In these cases, a cheating player might be given superhuman abilities or be able to teleport from place to place.