As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up a naive PC gamer. I was partial to the LucasArts games, Day o f the Tentacle, X-wing, and the like. There’s nothing like a machine with more input buttons than letters in the alphabet. Not to mention the PC was high-definition with full anti-aliasing before it was cool. So what’s one of the best games on the PC today? I’m arguing it’s an 8-bit block builder called Minecraft. This indie game is unique in that the game is still in alpha development and is available for sale at half the projected retail price. That’s right! You can own a partially built game that could potentially break your computer.
The game is the brainchild of Markus Persson, or Notch as he’s known in the tubes, and the game has already made him a millionaire. In Euros. The game can through Paypal which conveniently converts your rapidly devaluing dollars to Euros, or with a credit card which does something about the currencies. I don’t know. Why Tophat doesn’t have a Paypal account is beyond me.
Minecraft was programmed in java which means it can fun in-browser on virtually any computer in the world with a fast enough CPU, or you can download a client which lets you do things like full screen. The concept is fairly simple. You mine various resources in the game which can then be used to create other things. For example, “mining” a tree will give you a log which can be “crafted” into wood. Two wood blocks can make a stick, and five wood blocks arranged in a T shape will create a pickaxe.
But Enosh, that sounds dumb. Why would I want to wonder around making shovels and pickaxes just so I can mine more materials?
In its raw and infinitely bugged form the game is simply about building. Massive building projects that would make George Bailey so green with envy he’d strangle old man Potter right in the middle of Bedford Falls. Whether it’s a 1:1 scale model of the U.S.S. Enterprise designed by Halkun, or my attempt at making a scale model of the Great Sphinx of Giza, you can kind of get an idea what sort of things this game is capable of, but then again it’s not limited to structures. There have also been a lot of cool roller coasters and a vast array of mechanical objects. One of the things I found fascinating is redstone. Redstone is more or less electric wiring with different types of on/off switches and things. In it’s simplest form it serves as a way to lock and open doors and in its most complex you can actually build a computer with a series of logic gates. A guy who goes by the handle internetftw has actually built a working CPU and is in the process of adding RAM. Clicking on his name takes you to a video demonstrating early functions before the CPU was finished. It makes my English-major brain hurt yet I find it fascinating.
The game comes with a single player mode and something called survival multiplayer mode which is ironic at this point because you are invulnerable. To confuse you more, I should mention that there is a free version now called Classic which gives you infinite access to blocks and lets you go to town. It gets more confusing if you read the wiki (and it’s a big help) because it references previous test versions. But back to the Alpha. In single player you wake up, probably on a beach or something, and find yourself surrounded by mineable stuff. So you start messing around building little things and sooner or later it gets dark. And you start hearing weird noises. Next thing you know you and your pitiful little creation is being blown to smithereens by something called a creeper. If you manage to survive until daylight your structure, which you most likely built out of wood because it’s one of the easiest things to “mine,” is lit on fire by a zombie which has burst into flames upon coming into contact with the sun. Frownies. So, as day two begins you should probably start looking for a nearby cave you can easily find from the spawn point so you can make a shelter and start tunneling for supplies.
Single player offers limited resources, real threats, and provides a genuine sense of adventure. Though as I said make sure you can find your shelter easily from your spawn point. I built this functional and rather boring igloo around the entrance to my mine and after I died the snow had all melted and I was utterly lost. the snow has returned but I still can’t find my original cave. I play SMP most of the time anyway. Much less swimming out to sea to avoid hideous monsters.
The SMP, as it is oft referred to, requires you to make friends with someone who is running a server or download a server client and start your own. No dedicated servers, after all the game hasn’t even been released yet. Tophat hosts our server since the game alone cranks up my CPU temperature enough to crash the entire computer if I have it plugged in. I downloaded a program that monitors the temp. and other performance stats and the stupid thing gets up to near 100 degrees C if I would let it. If it encroaches 90 I shutdown the game for a bit. Or, I play it on my balcony in 3o degree weather until my fingers are too numb to hit the WASD. Oh, the point of this was, Tophat assures me the server is exceptionally easy to start but more difficult to change options. In fact I don’t think he’s figured it out yet.
He did manage to find the server command codes which give us access to unlimited resources should we choose to use them. I enjoy the mining bit so I try to avoid “cheating” but more often than not the temptation is too great. Especially with brick. Brick is a pain to make and clay has been hard to find in our sandy world. Oh, which is another hilarious bit. The world is randomly generated, though I’m told there are map editors, and our server world was mostly desert island near our spawn point. Tophat is very sick of sand. So much so that after a week or two of construction and mining he got fed up and replaced all of the sand around our sand castle with grass which now looks very dry.
I seemed to have rambled quite a bit here.
Now, seeing that the game is in alpha and all, updates are frequent and a number of features don’t really work. There is little in the way of instructions and no in-game tutorial yet. The wiki is very useful and for a good intro into redstone and mine carts Bob (Not the “a little tree goes here” Bob) has put together some useful videos. In programming as in life when you fix one problem more tend to pop up. For example, the latest patch, or update, or whatever, was meant to fix some issues with mine carts. That does not appear to have happened, though I don’t know what sad state they were in before. In fact, the update broke boats and made it a pretty good chance that a block you destroy by “mining” magically reappears. This slows down construction and infuriated a number of people on the forums and devblog. On the other hand, Notch just released a huge update for Halloween which introduce a place called the nether world accessed by a creepy purple portal which is only active in singleplayer among many other things. Most of the things in that update seem to work OK.
Oh! I should also mention that in addition to creating a wide variety of amazing things, people have also developed games within the game. I’m not familiar with them and the only one I know of by name is called Spleef. Notch has not indicated whether or not the final version of the game will feature a story mode or quest mode, though he has published a list of features and prioritized them. There’s also a forum with verified quotes from Notch concerning the game.
The minecraft community is now over a million strong with over half a million people actually playing a purchased alpha version. They can be very vocal in the forums, as I mentioned, and a lot of them think the game should be perfect by now and like to berate a guy who’s letting us play a game that isn’t technically finished. Then there is the group of fanboys that worship the ground Notch walks on and whom think every update is a gift from the gods. But these are the sort of people you meet on the internet. Personally, I’m happy to be playing a fascinating game that lets me do what every little boy loves to do, play with blocks.