Attack of the Blocks

I spend far too much time on the internet. As well as putting many hours of work into trying to keep this blog updated regularly, I while away a fair portion of time on Facebook, follow a large number of video series’ and webcomics, and can often be found wandering through the recesses of YouTube (an interesting and frequently harrowing experience that can tell one an awful lot about the extremes of human nature). But there is one thing that any resident of the web cannot hope to avoid for any great period of time, and quite often doesn’t want to- the strange world of Minecraft.

Since its release as a humble alpha-version indie game in 2009, Minecraft has boomed to become a runaway success and something of a cultural phenomenon. By the end of 2011, before it had even been released in its final release format, Minecraft had registered 4 million purchases and 4 times that many registered users, which isn’t bad for a game that has never advertised itself, spread semi-virally among nerdy gamers for its mere three-year history and was made purely as an interesting project by its creator Markus Persson (aka Notch). Thousands of videos, ranging from gameplay to some quite startlingly good music videos (check out the work of Captain Sparklez if you haven’t already) litter YouTube and many of the games’ features (such as TNT and the exploding mobs known as Creepers) have become memes in their own right to some degree.

So then, why exactly has Minecraft succeeded where hundreds and thousands of games have failed, becoming a revolution in gamer culture? What is it that makes Minecraft both so brilliant, and so special?

Many, upon being asked this question, tend to revert to extolling the virtues of the game’s indie nature. Being created entirely without funding as an experiment in gaming rather than profit-making, Minecraft’s roots are firmly rooted in the humble sphere of independent gaming, and it shows. One obvious feature is the games inherent simplicity- initially solely featuring the ability to wander around, place and destroy blocks, the controls are mainly (although far from entirely) confined to move and ‘use’, whether that latter function be shoot, slash, mine or punch down a tree. The basic, cuboid, ‘blocky’ nature of the game’s graphics, allowing for both simplicity of production and creating an iconic, retro aesthetic that makes it memorable and standout to look at. Whilst the game has frequently been criticised for not including a tutorial (I myself took a good quarter of an hour to find out that you started by punching a tree, and a further ten minutes to work out that you were supposed to hold down the mouse button rather than repeatedly click), this is another common feature of indie gaming, partly because it saves time in development, but mostly because it makes the game feel like it is not pandering to you and thus allowing indie gamers to feel some degree of elitism that they are good enough to work it out by themselves. This also ties in with the very nature of the game- another criticism used to be (and, to an extent, still is, even with the addition of the Enderdragon as a final win objective) that the game appeared to be largely devoid of point, existent only for its own purpose. This is entirely true, whether you view that as a bonus or a detriment being entirely your own opinion, and this idea of an unfamiliar, experimental game structure is another feature common in one form or another to a lot of indie games.

However, to me these do not seem to be entirely worthy of the name ‘answers’ regarding the question of Minecraft’s phenomenal success. The reason I think this way is that they do not adequately explain exactly why Minecraft rose to such prominence whilst other, often similar, indie games have been left in relative obscurity. Limbo, for example, is a side-scrolling platformer and a quite disturbing, yet compelling, in-game experience, with almost as much intrigue and puzzle from a set of game mechanics simpler even than those of Minecraft. It has also received critical acclaim often far in excess of Minecraft (which has received a positive, but not wildly amazed, response from critics), and yet is still known to only an occasional few. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has been often described as the greatest survival horror game in history, as well as incorporating a superb set of graphics, a three-dimensional world view (unlike the 2D view common to most indie games) and the most pants-wettingly terrifying experience anyone who’s ever played it is likely to ever face- but again, it is confined to the indie realm. Hell, Terraria is basically Minecraft in 2D, but has sold around 40 times less than Minecraft itself. All three of these games have received fairly significant acclaim and coverage, and rightly so, but none has become the riotous cultural phenomenon that Minecraft has, and neither have had an Assassin’s Creed mod (first example that sprung to mind).

So… why has Minecraft been so successful. Well, I’m going to be sticking my neck out here, but to my mind it’s because it doesn’t play like an indie game. Whilst most independently produced titled are 2D, confined to fairly limited surroundings and made as simple & basic as possible to save on development (Amnesia can be regarded as an exception), Minecraft takes it own inherent simplicity and blows it up to a grand scale. It is a vast, open world sandbox game, with vague resonances of the Elder Scrolls games and MMORPG’s, taking the freedom, exploration and experimentation that have always been the advantages of this branch of the AAA world, and combined them with the innovative, simplistic gaming experience of its indie roots. In some ways it’s similar to Facebook, in that it takes a simple principle and then applies it to the largest stage possible, and both have enjoyed a similarly explosive rise to fame. The randomly generated worlds provide infinite caverns to explore, endless mobs to slay, all the space imaginable to build the grandest of castles, the largest of cathedrals, or the SS Enterprise if that takes your fancy. There are a thousand different ways to play the game on a million different planes, all based on just a few simple mechanics. Minecraft is the best of indie and AAA blended together, and is all the more awesome for it.

Let the cats bounce

No mini-essays planned out today, so instead my sense of humour/inquisitiveness has led me across the web looking at… random stuff that makes me laugh basically. None of it really needs my plugging, as all are pretty successful, but good humour should never go wasted. I thought I might share some of it with you- I won’t post links, but Google should set you straight

XKCD
The first webcomic I ever read, and possibly the best known. Written by an ex-NASA consultant, it describes itself as “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math[s] and language”, which is a pretty good description. The split is about 5:15:70:10 (if we include physics, science and computing under mathematics), and hits exactly the right level of nerdiness about its various subjects: about pre-University level, not so nerdy that it can’t be understood by an intelligent GCSE student (much less its target audience of smart, bored people with a basic interest in science and a scientist’s sense of humour), but nerdy enough to make you feel smart and semi-elitist. Always a good source of some obscure but funny humour

Dead Cat Bounce
A comedy band, included here thanks to their YouTube fame. Although most of their songs aren’t that good (my personal opinion, still worth checking out), the have two gems in ‘Rugby’ (how I heard of them) and ‘Golf’- both are parodies of the people who play the various sports, and both are superb. Most of their songs aren’t sporting related, but these two are especially good.

Weebl and Bob
Not something I watch much of, but absolutely hilarious when I do. An animated series about two egg-like objects who speak as though their lips are incapable of movement (and are thankfully subtitled) . It’s all just more random funny stuff, mainly centred around pie and creme eggs. Some are parodies, some are tributes, some are just plain random. And all are funny (favourite episode? CSI: Pie-ami)

Cyanide and Happiness
Another webcomic, but this one could hardly be more different to XKCD. In a recent strip, one artist described himself as ‘making borderline-offensive jokes’. I would counter this, and say that the borderline got left about 5 miles back and that offensive is starting to sound tame. Inappropriate- yes. Outrageous- yes. Funny? Definitely- this is the one thing online that can be relied upon to get me wetting myself laughing. Their shorts are my personal favourites, ranging from the supremely well-done ‘Ted Bear’ parody, to the Family Guy-style ‘Speed Racist’, to the stupidly hysterical ‘Barbershop Quartet Hit On Girl From Taxi’

Zero Punctuation
The last on this list is series of video game reviews, made by Yahtzee Croshaw, are what made the game site ‘The Escapist’ as big as it is- there is a lot of stuff I watch on that site, but ZP is what first drew me and countless others there (while you’re there, I particularly suggest looking at MovieBob’s two series’). To describe Zero Punctuation’s videos as reviews is to be rather generous- what it basically consists of is 5 minutes of Yahtzee intricately insulting every possible flaw he can find in a game, particularly anything beige and containing the words ‘cover-based’, with some of the most intricate similes and metaphors you are likely to find anywhere. If you are easily insulted, or do not wish to see your favourite game being slaughtered, then move on. If, however, you want to give your sense of humour an airing to giggle like a maniac, then hit the archives