A little game called Minecraft…

I’m an idiot. It only just occured to me today to wonder how common a name “Markus Persson” actually is.

My first reaction on playing with Minecraft was: “Ah, this (much success, this quickly, with this style of game) is what the WurmOnline guys would have loved to achieve, I think”. Oh, the irony. Not that I expect the WO guys are unhappy with what they’ve achieved – WO is an achievement in and of itself, and continues to evolve in beauty and depth – but it’s too slow / too little to become a mainstream success. It’s a technical and personal success, not a business success. Unlike MC.

Now that I know it’s the *same* Markus – Wurm’s Markus_Persson from JavaGaming.org, and the author of Minecraft – I’m revisiting that first impression. Incidentally, in checking out this authorship, I saw I still have the 2nd highest post count on JGO (!), despite almost 5 years of personal absence. Wow. I really did talk a *lot* of crap, I guess ;)…

Simplicity…

There are two things in MC that jumped out at me early on. The first one was pure simplicity. This game/world is bursting with a sense that someone has ended up with nothing left to take away.

Art

The art has a nice style in and of itself. This is something I’ve often talked about with other veterans of making cheap games … mostly, that means indie developers (many of the folks from JGO, for instance – especially look at the 4k Java games contest, and look at the frequent winners such as Kev), but it also includes folks from the big-budget games industry, like Thomas Bidaux and Ken Malcolm. And, of course, Matt Mihaly, whose Earth Eternal started out explicitly using an art-style to keep production costs low.

It’s a trick. It’s the avoidance of the uncanny-valley. Make your art look deliberately cheap, instead of accidentally, and you can achieve the same level of pleasure in your audience as if you’d built photo-realistic graphics. As far as I recall, it’s even been tested (in movies and visual art) and found to be literally true.

Interaction

Here’s one key point where Wurm fell down … there was a vast amount to do, but it was damned hard to know WTF you could do, how, when, why, where.

And at this point, I’m going to pull out and dust off Runescape, circa 2001. Back when it was a few thousand players, and was already taking off, but long before it became famous. RS has changed plenty over the years, and has finessed their interface, but it started off with Andrew’s unrelenting insistence that the UI must have “no menus”. Everything had to be achievable with the LMB or the RMB. There were already examples of places where the interface was crippled and made complex because 3 (or 4) buttons were needed … and eventually Andrew relented and allowed for RMB to be a menu, with LMB being the “most likely option from that menu”.

The point being that if he’d not clung so hard to that desire for ultra simplicity in the GUI, then he’d probably have ended up with a series of rich menus – or more likely a many-button interface. Sure, it had to be modified as the game grew, but IMHO it was one of the greatest attractions to RS, and helped enormously with RS’s growth and success among the school-age market (where RS thrived).

Now back to MC. In MC, your actions are very narrowly limited. Indeed, they reminded me a lot of early RS. Everything relies upon context. In MC’s case, the compromise with game-richness comes in the form of the crafting interface. Here you have to step beyond the LMB/RMB setup, the “purely contextual” actionset, and move to a new UI element. It’s new, it’s extra UI, but … it’s still brutally simple, and yet (so far) proving more than adequate to the enormous demands of variety in MC.

… and logic

This is the second one that struck me, and it took a bit longer, a bit more playing around (and watching other players in their more advanced worlds), for me to spot.

Wurm Online was always one of the richest “physical universe simulators”: there was a huge amount of physical laws implemented and underlying everything you saw on-screen. This is not a good path for a developer to take: it’s a steep slope into exponentially large CPU and content-production costs … and even worse in terms of balancing and game-design.

Oh, you think that a world with “full physics” has no content production cost? Ha! How much time do you think it takes to implement each of the laws of physics? Even with a rigid-body physics engine to start from? May seem like there’s not many of them around, but just try coding it…

But many of WO’s laws were barely noticed by the majority of the players, while others were smack in their faces a large amount of the time. MC very nearly appeared to cherry-pick only the “frequently significant” laws, and focus on those. MC’s world is breaktaking in it’s depth, and yet if you analyse it closely, you quickly notice it’s lacking some very basic essentials of a world-simulator.

And, back to the irony, I felt that last point made MC feel very much like a direct sequel (in spirit) to Wurm Online: a “lessons learned … and acted upon” when it came down to the most addictive and engaging (and unique) part of WO. And yet I was still too dumb to connect the names together. Doh!

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