Video game’s simple pleasures enthrall, addict gamers

By Stephen Strobbe
Reporter

First-person shooters, space marines, massive guns and huge battles. Most popular video games have at least one of these four elements, but one game developer has set out to turn the entire world of video games on its head.

In May 2009, Swedish programmer Markus Persson — now more casually known to the gaming world as Notch — began development on a game that has in the time since garnered critical acclaim, commercial success, a popular wiki and a fervent fanbase. The game accomplished all this despite only reaching a beta release, typically the release just prior to a full release, this past December. According to gaming website Gamasutra, Persson intends for the game to reach a full release later this year.

Minecraft, a game by Mojang, starts out as a simple enough concept: As soon as a new game is launched, a character spawns in a randomly generated world map — a map that will continue randomly generating essentially forever once the character begins reaching the edges — where everything from trees to cacti to caverns are made of a variety of textured cubes.

Each cube has different properties. There are wood blocks for the trees, sand blocks for the beaches, stone blocks for the mountains and so on. What happens next?

Walk up to a tree, start hitting it and after a few seconds that block will drop so that it can be picked up. Now that wood block can be used to hit other blocks. Get enough wood blocks and to craft a workbench. Use the workbench to make shovels, mining picks and swords to fight the wandering enemies. Use the mining pick to mine stone, which allows players to make stronger mining picks and weapons, furnaces or stairs.

Keep mining to find coal to make torches, iron, diamond ore and maybe even gold. Go deeper and to possibly find a monster-spawner. Use all the blocks collected so far to start building a house. Put some sand in the furnace to create glass to make windows. And then use the wood to make planks, and then use the planks to make wooden poles, and then use the poles to make ladders to climb on the roof of the house and start on a second floor.

Maybe now the addiction potential of Minecraft is becoming clear. So much so that some users on the Minecraft forums have jokingly referred to the game as “Minecrack.”

Baton Rouge, La., senior John Mark Lowry started playing the game recently.

“I heard about it from one of my brother’s friends who had played for a while and just kind of mentioned it in passing,” Lowry said. “When he was telling me about the game, he said ‘It’s this video game that I just kind of play casually’ and then explained the game to me. So I thought, ‘OK, good, sounds great.’ The main thing I got was that he played it casually, so I downloaded it and started playing.

“The first week I probably played two to four hours a day depending on what kind of time I had. So seeing how addicting it was, I just sent him a Facebook message that said ‘Casually?’ He messaged me back saying, ‘Haha, gotcha.’”

The game has an incredible range in what can be both mined and crafted. There is “redstone dust” that can be used to make simple circuitry, an entire other region called the Nether full of blocks with other wordly characteristics, the ability to create mine carts and mine cart tracks on which to ride (think Rollercoaster Tycoon, but even more expansive).

There are enemies, known as Creepers, that exist to just wander around, explode and destroy your beautiful creations. There are multiplayer maps where users can join forces and create entire cities together. There is a creative mode where the inventory of blocks is endless. And since the game is still in beta, updates are fast-coming and frequently bring entire new dimensions to the gameplay.

Despite all these features, gamers may be surprised by what the game lacks. There are no bosses to beat and no quests to complete, at least not yet. Players can only survive and build. And people have done just that. Some people have built 1:1 scale replicas of Minas Tirith, the capital of J.R.R. Tolkein’s fictional Gondor from “The Lord of the Rings,” or Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise ­­— literally block by block. In a way, it’s like playing with life-size Lego blocks. Others have used the ability of redstone dust to create circuitry in order to build an ALU (the math part of a CPU) capable of performing simple mathematics within the game. It would seem, given the freedom to do anything, people have tried to do everything.

“I think the best thing about it is that I just get to do whatever I want,” Lowry said. “There aren’t really any objectives other than just making things and I enjoy having free rein over this little digital world. Whether I want to just go around and mine things or build a crazy big house or even just level a mountain, whatever I want to do, it’s fun to figure out how to accomplish that using the items that they give you and then figuring out how to craft it into whatever you need. And then ultimately accomplishing goals that you set for yourself.”

The Minecraft wiki is home to more than 600 articles devoted solely to the game and, according to analytic data from Martijn van de Kerkhof, the wiki’s head administrator, the site is frequently accessed by about 2.6 million people per month with 970,000 of those users coming from the United States.

The low-resolution graphics may put off some gamers who have grown accustomed to only the absolute highest tier when it comes to their video games’ graphics. But Minecraft seems to have taken the unique approach of valuing quality gameplay mechanics over flashy or even impressive visuals.

This little independent game, with practically no advertising whatsoever and no official release, has been an incredible success, selling over a million copies. Gamasutra also reported at the end of February that Persson has plans to port Minecraft over to both iPad and iPhone.

Looking to the game’s future, Persson said on Minecraft’s official website, “I’ve got a few plans and visions, but my only true design decision is to keep it fun and accessible.”

Lowry offered a warning to interested gamers: “I would just warn people that, if you’re gonna try it out, it’s definitely addicting. Start it when you have some spare time and not when you’re gonna want to skip things so you can play it.”

The game currently costs about $20, available only on Minecraft.net. It is expected to go up to about $28 by the full release.