Pete Davison: Mein Kraft

Posted on April 9, 2011 by

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Yes, I have discovered MinecraftMinecraft, despite being an indie game and therefore something I should technically automatically be championing, going by past experience, is something which I’ve always had something of a curious resistance to. It hasn’t been by choice, though—the reason I haven’t been playing Minecraft is not the same as the reason I’m not playing Call of Duty, for example.

In fact, if anything, it’s more to do with the fact that when I finally gave in to peer pressure and bought a copy a number of months back, I only had my netbook with me and it ran like ass on there. And then it ran like ass under OS X on my Mac at home, too. For literally months and months I’d been saying to myself “I should really install it on the Windows partition of my Mac and try it properly…”

Well now I have. And what do you know? It’s rather good, though it’s the kind of game that appears to—at least in its current beta stage—be very much “what you make of it”.

If you’re one of the few people who hasn’t contributed to developer Notch’s millions so far, here’s a brief rundown. You are dropped into a randomly-generated world made entirely of blocks of various materials. You have nothing to your name except a punching fist that can knock down trees. It’s up to you to survive, because every night, the nasties come out and will do their best to kill you.

That’s about it—but the main appeal of the game in its present state comes from the fact that once you’ve built yourself a secure shelter, it’s time to start exploring the world and building stuff. You can create structures either by hollowing out existing terrain or by collecting resources and stacking them to build things—kind of like pixelated Lego blocks.

Then there’s the “craft” part of the title—you can make items. The daunting part of the game for new players is the fact that no help is given when you start the game—without looking at sites such as the excellent Minecraft Wiki, you’d be expected to figure out how to make tools for yourself. And given that even making the simplest tools requires several steps (punch trees for wood, craft wood into planks, build workbench from planks, craft planks into sticks, combine sticks and planks in various arrangements to produce tools) it’s arguably something of a long shot to expect people to do this for themselves.

Or is it? Steven Johnson argues in Everything Bad is Good for You that the cognitive processes you go through when figuring out stuff like this for yourself are very beneficial—good “brain exercise”. You use past experience from previous games and other things you’ve done in the game you’re playing to draw conclusions for yourself about what to do next. And sure enough, I found that once I’d started playing a bit and got the basics down, I started naturally experimenting with different arrangements of materials to see what they produced. Some things worked, some things didn’t. If something doesn’t work, you don’t lose anything, either, so the game is set up to encourage exploration and experimentation.

There’s also an element of risk, though. Death isn’t permanent—but it does cause you to drop all your stuff and potentially lose it. If you’ve spent a long time collecting things, this can be a real pain, especially if you were exploring a long way from your home spot. Then there’s the fact that the game’s most notorious enemies, the “Creepers”, explode when they get near you. Not only does this cause significant damage to you, it also blows big holes in the things you’ve built.

But rather than being frustrating, most players simply take this as a sign that they need to defend their homes a little better. Perhaps they should make them harder to get to, or plant some cacti to put off enemies, or build some weapons and armour.

The possibilities are pretty extensive, and I’m looking forward to exploring the game further—and seeing where Notch takes it in the future. The game comes out of beta on the 11th of November this year, so if you want to pick it up for its current reduced price (25% off the full price) then get over there now.

 

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Posted in: Pete Davison