Something curious occurred a little over a week ago in Las Vegas.
A number of wide-eyed, long-limbed, sunlight-dodging Java developers from Sweden hired out a convention centre, and asked if anyone wouldn't mind meeting up to talk about a digital mining simulator in beta development. The imaginatively titled MineCon event sold out, drawing over four thousand attendees. Even given the location, it's hard to imagine all of them were insane.
Such is the cult of Markus "Notch" Persson, a team of loyal hardcore fans who worship the ground Mojang's lead developer and Minecraft creator walks on. It's not hard to see why: Minecraft is the ultimate indie success story. Four million sales, and over ten million registered gamers. Hundreds of devoted blogs, thousands of YouTube videos and a community that hangs on every minor update. There are game studios with budgets so large they could create a realistic shooter by actually funding their own war, and they can't even come close to the success one person has engineered out of virtually nothing.
Simplicity is the key. Minecraft, at its core, requires absolutely nothing of its players. The game is divided between Survival Mode and Creative, both of which can be accessed in either single player or LAN/internet multiplayer, with an additional hardcore mode for those unconcerned with losing every iota of progress over a minor mistake.
The world is a three-dimensional environment predominantly comprised of textured cubes forming grasslands, mountains, oceans, deserts, and swamps collectively referred to as biomes. These biomes are further populated by trees, plants, lakes, lava pits, and passive creatures such as sheep, cows, wolves, and birds. The entire world is procedurally generated, meaning that the further the player walks, the more terrain becomes available. The world is so vast that there may as well be no limit to it, although it has been calculated that walking for around 800 hours in one direction will probably break something.
Virtually every block in the game can be mined either by hand or with various tools, and these blocks are then typically released back to the player to be placed in another location. Some blocks can be combined together to form wholly different materials, some can be further broken up to release crafting items. Cutting down a tree with an axe, for example, will yield wood, which can be broken down to wooden planks which can be turned into doors, storage chests, and many other useful items. Wooden planks can also be broken down further to sticks, which can be used to make ladders, fences, or combined with coal to make torches for lighting dark areas. These rules are fundamental to progress in Survival Mode, although are largely thrown out with Creative which allows infinite access to every block in the game from the outset.
Light is crucial, as any areas that fall below a specific illumination threshold will be used by the game to generate monsters. These ungainly creatures roam the world terrorising players until cut down by the swift slice of a crafted sword, or dispatched by other slightly more imaginative means. Building a large, encased area with no lighting is a quick way to generate dozens of mobs, however as the game also features a day/night cycle, merely standing about outside without any structure for protection will eventually result in a nocturnal thrashing.
The creeper – perhaps the most feared monster – is a tall, green, armless annoyance that moves silently until within range of the player. It's here he'll issue a hissing sound, and promptly explode, which usually results in death and the destruction of a significant area around the victim. Death forces a respawn back to either the beginning of the map, or a checkpoint in the form of a craftable bed that doubles as a mechanism for skipping the night cycle entirely.
The more creatures killed, the more experience is provided to the player, adding to their level and allowing weapons, tools and armour to be imbued with additional attributes geared towards higher damage, increased efficiency and better protection respectively.
So far, so simple. Indeed, if this was all Minecraft had to offer, it'd be unlikely to hold appeal for long; perhaps why many new observers write Minecraft off as a curious sandbox with little redeeming value. But by heading underground to seek out the most elusive material, the game adds another layer of addiction to keep all but the most cynical hooked for hours at a time.
Most of the surface of the world, including oceans, is generated at least 65 layers above the absolute base of the map. By crafting a pickaxe and chipping away at the surface, elaborate tunnels through the various strata can be formed, but it's not until layer 30 is reached that the more interesting items start to be uncovered. Gold, diamonds, redstone and lapis lazuli blocks are found in seams, and are amongst the rarest of ore available. These can be used to make the most powerful items, weapons and armour; by crafting diamond armour and equipping a diamond sword, sweet violent revenge can be had on even the most determined of creepers. A bloody path can be swathed through legions of spiders and hordes of zombies, and by crafting a bow, even the errant archers can be met on their own territory with an arrow through the neck.
Working deep underground can be hazardous. Abandoned mineshafts, dungeons, strongholds, large chasms and vast pools of lava lay in wait to ensnare ill-equipped players who dare to dig too deep. Some areas are cavernous, and can be stumbled upon without warning. It's never a good idea to dig either straight down, or straight up – both will likely uncover something fatal, such as a vast free-fall into a lava pit, or the discovery of the underside of a lake. Monsters, gravity, immolation and drowning are the most serious threats in this hostile world, and retreating to the surface can often bring about a palpable sense of relief.
Once the inventory is full, and the allure of spelunking has passed, collected items can be safely stored in chests, and construction designs mulled over. The more ambitious players will opt for grand, towering buildings, looming over mountains and sending a visual message as to their resource-gathering prowess. Some may create smaller designs, perhaps with railway tracks for transport, or invest time into understanding the various methods of farming crops to supply other players with food. Rarer still, some propellor-capped enthusiasts will spend hours attempting to perfect the utterly crazy, yet incredibly detailed implementation of redstone circuits.
Redstone, as alluded to above, is a block found deep in the bowels of the terrain. Once mined, it breaks into redstone dust, which for all intents and purposes can be considered analogous to electrical wire. Redstone dust can be placed on most surfaces before being powered by redstone torches, levers, buttons, pressure plates and even detector rails that send a small charge when a minecart rolls over them. The electrical signal is then transmitted to specific items, allowing them to perform a function; power a door, and it will open and close according to each flip of a level. Power a piston, and it can move blocks vertically or horizontally. Power a block of TNT, and a large hole will result, taking with it most of the redstone dust used to trigger the explosion.
These basic redstone concepts are easy to understand, but there's even more complexity for those willing to take it to the next level. By combining redstone dust and a constant power source such as a redstone torch in predetermined patterns, various logic computers can be created. By creating a particular logic gate, the redstone circuit can be powered from different sources at different times, and kept in synch by the game's own internal clock. This can be used to perhaps create a piston-powered bridge over a pool of lava that can be raised or lowered from either side. Or an automatic arrow dispenser that fires whenever anyone gets too close. Or, a 16-bit computer. The inclusion of redstone circuits elevates Minecraft from a mere curiosity, to a fully-fledged educational powerhouse. There is more detail here than all but the most imaginative can possibly utilise.
Throughout Minecraft's evolution, additional blocks and items have been steadily introduced, and there's no reason to suspect this won't be the case for some time to come. Each new addition brings with it a scrabble to understand and utilise it in a new way, and find some kind of legitimate method to exploit the game for the ultimate gain of the player. Each new monster added brings with it detailed studies by the community in the best way to kill it, and harvest whatever items it drops. Perhaps setting up a free-flowing river inside an unlit building will take spawned creepers and force them into piston-powered blocks, crushing them and releasing their gunpowder for use elsewhere. The same end might be achieved through use of lava, or clever cactus placement. Establishing the ultimate in efficiency can require a great deal of planning, and an extensive knowledge of the overriding rules that govern the physical nature of the world.
On occasion, the content on offer may be structured in such a way that seems cumbersome, or unnecessary according to player preference. Here another strength of the game is revealed, as virtually every aspect can be modified in some way or another. Thousands of mods and plugins have been engineered by the community, allowing changes to the default textures, world variables, AI behaviour and even the way the world is created in general. Some mods may encourage players to mine for uranium to power craftable nuclear reactors, which can then be attached to automatic mining machines towering above the landscape, extracting ore automatically for transport along vast conveyor tubes. Mojang may have made Minecraft, but there's little doubt it now belongs to the community.
As more of the rules, and crafting recipes are understood, more of the game becomes available. Additional worlds can be teleported to: The Nether is a vast, dark series of caverns populated by monsters such as pigmen and flying, shrieking ghasts with explosive attacks. It's modelled after hell, and adorned with massive lava lakes and huge fortresses where even more outlandish creatures spawn. By conquering The Nether and extracting the necessary materials, a portal to The End can then be used, where a massive dragon challenges players to co-ordinate their attacks in order to achieve ultimate victory over the game, and watch the end credits roll.
But it's never the end. Minecraft really only has a beginning, a point at which the player is thrust into a seemingly benign world with nothing but their own imagination and desire for accomplishment. A world that equally rewards the construction of a dirt house, or a sprawling palatial mansion. There's no pretension, no antagonistic rules, and no hand-holding. For anyone looking for the ultimate in expression and aesthetic satisfaction, or merely searching for a game with virtually limitless exploration and achievement, Minecraft offers it all.
The screenshots attached to this review have been taken using the default texture pack on an internal Survival Mode multiplayer server hosted at Gameplanet, populated by a dozen or so testers over the past few months.