Entries in games (1)



For the last seven months or so, my son Asher has been obsessed with a computer game that at first glance looks banal but is truly startling. It is called Minecraft, and it is amazing in several ways. First, to get this out of the way, it has been developed over the last 2 years by one person, Markus Persson, aka "Notch," who sells the game himself online. It has sold over 4 million copies at a cost from $15 (alpha) to $22 (beta) each, meaning Notch has made well over $50 million cash. And version 1.0 hasn't even launched yet. Minecraft 1.0 is releasing tomorrow, 11/11/11. 

In short, Minecraft is a first-person, world-building game. You create worlds, and you inhabit them, surviving and building. How is it different from other world-games, such as Second Life? It is what you might call low-level. It is about resources, physics, chemistry, evolution, invention. Not so much emphasis on character and what you are wearing. The world is lo-res, pixelated and blocky, divided into a 3-D grid of matter: stone, dirt, grass, ore, ice, water, air, and so on. To create iron to build with, you smelt ore in a furnace. You build a house, or a tower to climb to survey the lay of the land, and you light it with torches (but be careful because you can burn your house down). There is weather— rain  causes floods, freezing turns water to ice. You get the idea that instead of the game designer imagining a player's progression, he has simply provided conditions: natural resources, a few crude tools, space, and time. Players take the role of primitive humans, inventing technologies to enhance their world (or survive - - there are wild animals roaming around). 

The game sometimes looks like what is called a first-person shooter -- but without the guns. So players invented their own catapult-like guns from material on hand. In fact technological evolution within the game has paralleled the development of the game. Notch introduces new tools and higher-level technology as the game advances.

To me this is much more fascinating than the last big game about the origin and development of life, Will Wright's Spore. Spore developed in secret over years until its dramatic release. While it is impressive and staggeringly complex, it feels predetermined and closed, with too much of the choose-your-outfit, make-your-own-vehicle play that feels stale and tedious. 


 Minecraft feels atomic, like Lego imbued with physics and chemistry. You can build things the developer never anticipated. In fact Minecraft "mods" are all over the Net -- people have hacked in flying, mass-construction techniques, animals and weapons to enable hunting. But you always have to build your shelter. Asher's homes have typically featured towers for viewing (the chunky landscape can be surprisingly beautiful) and cellars full of furnaces churning out building material. He has pet animals, and while they seem to return home, he must be careful to keep the door closed to prevent them from wandering away. Life goes on when you're away from the game. You can come back to find your house flooded or burned down or animals running amok.  

Asher runs his own server on his laptop -- his own world that his friends can log into and inhabit. He wants his computer to be open at all times to keep the world open. He has been encouraging me to build all our projects in Minecraft. I must admit that the prospect is fascinating. It is a chance to see how the spaces we design fare in a primal, emergent environment.