The Game Design Forum

First Impressions: Minecraft

Minecraft. Mojang Specifications, retail release TBA

Minecraft, one of the most independent of the indy genre, is a game that has changed a number of assumptions about gaming. The game is about harvesting materials like dirt, sand, stone, wood, metal, and water out of the randomly generated terrain, and the building anything you can imagine with them. And people have imagined quite a bit.

But there are a number of amazing things that the game has done to challenge assumptions about game design. First of all, the game has no goal; none at all. And yet players will find themselves saying ďIím just going to do this one last thingĒ and keep playing for hours on end. Secondly, the game hasnít even been officially released yet; as of this writing it isnít even in beta testing yet--but people are paying for it! The community has been acting as the game testers, but instead of getting paid (poorly) for their work, the Minecraft community actually pays for the alpha--which is, to be fair, more functional than a standard alpha.

The reason behind this, and many reviews have hit upon this, is that Minecraftís game design is elegant. Elegance, in this sense, means that only a few simple game design ideas create all the fun. Minecraft is probably complex from a programming point of view; the game design ideas, however, are few but powerful. Some good physics and a very simple monster-spawning mechanic set the table for some extremely engrossing gameplay ideas discussed below.

ESSENTIAL GAME CONCEPT: Randomly Generated Levels

Although I have no doubt that the underlying equation that makes Minecraftís randomly generated world work is incredibly complex, the result is extremely elegant from a game design perspective. Much like the random dungeons of Diablo 2, the areas are random but not senseless. Since mining is such an important part of the game, it makes sense that mineral-rich mines are not chaotically strewn about the map; there are recognizable trends in mine geography.

Mountains tend to have wealth in them; underground water sources will usually accompany rich caverns. Clay is near large bodies of open water, redstone is near lava, iron and coal show up close together, etc. Players tend to develop good mining instincts, so that while every world is completely new, it is not entirely unfamiliar. This is an ideal implementation of random levels; rather than being a hurdle that impedes learning, it is simply a way to endlessly provide gameplay freshness without making gameplay tedious and assinine, with players eternally lost in an unrecognizable landscape.

ESSENTIAL GAME CONCEPT: Reconstructible Terrain

Minecraft might be more accurately termed a terraforming game rather than a building game, because the complete reshaping of everything in the world is possible. There are some limits (the bottom layer of the earth is indestructible) but these essentially operate as the stage for gameplay rather than a limiting factor.

Especially in survival mode, the terraforming aspect makes engineering that much more fun. Ask anyone whoís built an underwater city, miles of roller-coaster tracks, or literally moved mountains: the engineering challenge of figuring out how to do it is one of the supreme thrills of Minecraft.

Survival mode adds an interesting dimension to this in that players have to engineer around monsters that spawn at night and in dark mine caverns; this means adding lots of boundaries, secondary access tunnels, traps, escape routes, etc. The tension that arises between beautiful architecture and survivable environment makes for another interesting facet of gameplay.


Many games offer players the chance to build and customize their own usable items; in Minecraft, it is the playerís only choice. All players start with absolutely nothing in their inventory and have to specifically craft every kind of item they need. In fact, players even have to create the tools that allow them to create more items: the environment contains only ingredients (and no directions, either).

This highlights the other aspect of the gameís enormous appeal: sense of accomplishment. The challenges of engineering, gathering and surviving are great, but the sense of accomplishment that comes from building cities, castles and the like is quite a feeling. That players start with absolutely nothing and have to make every single tool along the way to building their metropolis is a unique experience. Some games feel as though they have been guiding the player with a firm hand to their eventual destination. In Minecraft this feeling is completely absent, and accordingly the player has the sense of having found their own way through the game wilderness.

The Bottom Line

Minecraft is not done being developed; it won't be for a while, but this is a very good thing. The strength and elegance of Minecraft's core gameplay really would have to be displaced by another, better game of a very similar type for its ongoing design upgrades to cease. This probably won't happen any time soon. The essential simplicity and elegance of the design mean that the game allows for freshness and innovation, in two ways. For one thing, every game of Minecraft is new, and as multiplayer becomes fully functional this will be a very durable selling point for the game. Secondly, Minecraft and its developer have been friendly to 3rd party support. Considering what a solid set of game design ideas lies behind Minecraft, the modding community will doubtless use these riches to create increasingly imaginative Minecraft-based games. Minecraft a wonderful game that can bring back a child-like sense of wonder that comes with building imaginitive worlds with remarkable power. But beyond that Minecraft will matter because it will be at the center of some incredible design communities for a long time.

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