The recent "MineCon" conference in Las Vegas saw the official 1.0 release of MineCraft, a 3-D "Lego world" immersive sandbox online multiplayer game (mentioned previously at Metaviews). The release was expected by everyone of the millions of players who had already played in many beta versions, all downloaded and played on the internet. A sizeable Minecraft community, including celebrities (though not for skill at play, but for reinterpreting worlds in their videos that take place in Minecraft) has emerged — some videos have above 10 million views on YouTube.
Minecraft Official Trailer
Originally created alone by Swede Marcus Persson (a/k/a "Notch") at his company Mojang, Minecraft is a cute pixellated-graphics world of rough 3-D "blocks" that players at first adventure in, then begin repurposing blocks from to build — well, anything they wish.The game has a minimal guided-play story line — in survival mode, one must build a shelter to weather the night and its monsters, establishing oneself to the point of crafting weapons to fight off the baddies, or hunt for food. But that's where the guiding ends, to much contrast with such carefully-managed MMORPG's like World of Warcraft. (WoW follows a subscription model — Minecraft requires purchase of the client, one time, so Mojang has very different incentives than Blizzard regarding gameplay and content).
Recently released for Android (and part of a deal today for extremely cheap prices), it will be released for Xbox360 in early 2012, and is set to go entirely viral.
One can build a house, a farm, and even keep livestock (but Farmville and Angry Birds this aint). Blocks can be converted and combined from one type to create another with various other tools — wood can be cut from trees and crafted with stone into stone axes, swords and picks. A big part of the game is mining the blocks (thus the name) into the underground, avoiding lava pools, tunnels full of monsters, and deadly drops from great heights in monstrous caverns with invisible bottoms (until lit up with torches by the player). Materials to create "redstone circuits" (like electricity) can be combined with switches, pressure plates, pistons — even logic gates and timers — to construct many types of automatic devices that react to the player or others - even monsters — to carry out some mechanical task or effect. (Crushing monsters that stray too near one's house is a favourite toy to build. Automatically collecting chickens' eggs, while functional, represents a new kind of fun factory farming.)
Metaviews launched its own minecraft server at minecraft.metaviews.ca, which I've spent a week and a half playing on. The game is free to run in server mode for anyone, but client side (written in Sun/Oracle's Java, which might be the first popular video game ever to be so) requires purchase. The server code itself can be modified — many various mods have been hacked up and shared by a large online community — from new types of blocks and tools (shotguns, nuclear bombs), to new effects and gameplay grafted on (electric power, even nuclear, and currency systems.) Many gamers build games inside the game — there's treasure hunts, golf and even archery contests (the bow and arrow being a fundamental weapon in all versions).
The rewards, immediate, and over the long term more fundamentally subtle, are myriad, especially in the multiplayer online version. (The game can be played alone, but such vast worlds seem lonely and empty without other human minds behind characters, or to discover and enjoy what one may have built).
At first the wonder of seeing a gaping hole in the roof of a giant cavern loosing a waterfall into a pool of lava (creating rare and valuable obsidian), and the satisfaction of finding diamonds (to craft harder tools that resist wear better and are more efficient - gold ore is mere treasure, being soft) is a minor achievement.
But eventually, especially in the online multiplayer version, collaboration and construction rule the day, where virtual builders can construct their own custom houses, and interact via an online chat. Since the world is largely rule-free — anyone can set another's house on fire or destroy it with an axe or pick — nothing in the game code will stop you — social mores begin to form from thin air and a collaborative society emerges.
At first, common problems are a collective concern — not running out of food and basic mineral supplies to craft tools, to creating outposts in far-flung lands one might adventure in (the worlds created can be quite huge — "oceans can be 10,000s of blocks across" — the player walks approximately 5-8 blocks a second). However, as things become more developed, consensus emerges on other social problems — where to put the lava storage pool, and remembering to replant the forests everyone thins out for basic building materials.
At Salon, the author accompanies his teen son to MineCon to investigate the phenomenon. It is now being used in schools to help students (who can't seem to put their homework down), and help model planning projects with citizen input — the interface is extremely simple for design (pickup a block, drop a block, break a block) — usable by a large audience.
On the Metaviews Minecraft server, the farm was becoming too crowded, so instead of just harvesting the livestock, some were re-released into the wild (where they originally came from) to repopulate stock lost to hunting by desperate players. Cadmea, the chunk of land christened by Metaviews' early settlers, had all of its native bovines wiped out due to hunting. Recently a fauna-management expedition was mounted to distant lands (across a small channel) to herd cows back and re-establish wild and farm stock. The effort was harder than herding cats, with much frustration (several cows died at the sword of a frustrated player) punctuated with laugh-out-loud moments of udder stupidity (forgive me) as cows plumetted off cliffs, jumped into trees and got stuck in the leaves, or went for a swim in pools of lava. However we are pleased to have bred four generations of calves now and are releasing cows back into the wild very soon to keep the ecosystem healthy. Next up: a fire-management plan and water system for the farm — some monsters catch fire if caught out in morning sunlight, and one set a house partly made of leaves on fire. Building codes may also be a new topic for discussion soon ...
Come join us in this collaborative immersion experiment at minecraft.metaviews.ca.