This is a recent article I wrote for Indie(Function); magazine about my perceptions on what makes Minecraft so successful:
Minecraft: What Makes It Hit, Stick, and Grow
Guest Writer: Connor Ullmann
What Makes It Hit
Minecraft was amazingly confusing the first time I played it. Suddenly, I find myself in this pixelly world, walking around and fumbling with the controls a bit, learning to jump and use my inventory, without any kind of tutorial or opening NPC telling you how to do this and that and what to do next. This was initially cumbersome, but I soon caught on to the purpose of this—Minecraft’s unhelpful world really embodied what it is; it’s a world where you’re figuring out what you want to do, and you’re all alone to do it yourself. In a sense, not having that NPC there made the world all yours, and that feeling really pulls you into the game and makes you want to find out more about it. This is part of what makes Minecraft so immersive—players are given full control, and have to learn on their own how to use it. Dying to zombies on your first night, making your first pickaxe, crafting your first torch—these are all important in keeping the player interested in the game, as well as keeping them engaged with thoughts of how each new tool can be used. Minecraft gives you a world with scant few rules, and you need to figure out for yourself how it all works—thus you discover every facet of it, and the game keeps on giving.
What Makes It Stick
Picking away, block after block, seems like an enormous waste of time when seen from outside Minecraft. You’re going to hold down your mouse button for hours watching the same crack animation overlay appear on block after block, just to find a one-in-a-million diamond ore pit (which will just make you more pickaxes with which to dig more?) The answer for most people who play, however, is an almost begrudging “yes.” Because Minecraft, even though it is built on very few core elements, has a sense of majestic discovery to it—on the other side of any block could lie an enormous and expansive cave filled with lava, water, coal, redstone, iron, diamond… Everything you need to help make your recreation of Middle Earth, but at the risk of creepers, zombies, and spiders that will scare you half to death when you find them, and enrage you when you die to them. Minecraft is complicated, yet the elements within it are simple and not built to make you play with them in a single manner. The piston wasn’t given a purpose when it was designed—it was designed with the idea of letting players give it purpose.
The future of gaming is in procedural generation. I say this because I know the feeling of floating around in a Minecraft boat just looking at mountain formations and saying “man, that’s awesome! I should put my base there.” Playing an FPS with straight-edged levels and storyline, with the same ammo box in the same place for every player every time the level is played, removes the sense of discovery and instead makes you a role-player (don’t get me wrong, this is good for some games, but not for a truly addictive and replayable one).
Procedural generation, alongside letting the player discover the game without the developer’s hand-holding, has a few subtler benefits. I’ve worked on my own small Minecraft-esque 2D digging platformer, and one of the most inspiring moments while working on the game was when I had finished building the cave generation algorithm—it lined walls in gold and limestone, created long, dark tunnels, and added pale enemies randomly that would attack you. Walking into that first cave gave me an amazing burst of motivation, because I was discovering the game, not just making it. This is an unseen benefit for using procedural generation because, with it, even developers get to feel out the game and enjoy it as they make it, making for a better game overall with more effort and motivation driving its creation. Minecraft is also is an opportunity for the developer, given the fact that almost every idea is functional within it. That, more than Minecraft’s explosive popularity and money-making power, is why I wish I had made Minecraft.
What Makes It Grow
Building in Minecraft brings about a need to share that is unparalleled by conventional “sharing” in video games used today—one example is online highscores, which are a way in which developers attempt to create replayability by driving you to beat others’ scores online and show your prowess at a game. In Minecraft, however, you care much more about what you’ve done because you built something—something that isn’t just a number or an achievement. And, just like showing your mom the lego toy you made when you were little, you crave for the world to see your 1:1 scale sandstone Taj Mahal that you spent 14 hours working on.
Now, what better way to share your vast, labyrinthine tunnel network to the world than through the marvel that is YouTube? This need to share, in and of itself, brings about a new reason that Minecraft is successful. When you show off your scale-size replica of the Star Trek Enterprise, people who are interested in Star Trek will stumble across your video when looking for Star Trek videos—this means that the interests that the audience has with which they populate their Minecraft world are also instrumental in propagating the game to an even wider audience. This is very different from most games, which breed creativity within the game’s own sphere (for example, using different peripherals to build your own gun in an FPS) that take away the audience’s ability to bring in outside influences and share them through the game.
What Can Be Learned
Minecraft hits with its originality (sorry guys, can’t give you too many tips on how to replicate that!) and open world. It is a discovery that is left to the player to understand. Once understood, Minecrafters can build on what they have and discover new places with rarer ore and cool formations (has anyone else made the floor of their bedroom out of pumpkins? No?) Last, players want to show what they’ve made and are making, which is made easy through YouTube and the built-in screenshot button in Minecraft. Sharing is absolutely crucial for Minecraft, as it helps build the audience and keep players interested because everyone will want to show what they’ve made to the world. These are make Minecraft hit, stick, and grow with gamers.
Minecraft is an amazing game, and I hope it continues to gather a larger fan base. It has been an inspiration for me, and I hope this article helped to outline some of the basics in Minecraft that have made it so successful, and how they can be used in more games today!