Mojang, the indie powerhouse behind Minecraft, the little game that could, can actually teach the video game industry a thing or two about proper game development. Mojang has a lot to crow about. It does not have a huge multinational, multibranch army of development staff. It does not have an immense advertising war chest. It, relatively, does not have huge name recognition. Still, the little Swedish company has managed to rack up more than five million sales of its world creation and mining game Minecraft. It concluded a successful Minecraft convention, Minecon, which was attended by over 4500 Las Vegas convention goers. It is also the focus of many adoring Youtube tutorials and fan art.
While some larger stock market-driven publishing houses might scoff at the 5 million unit sales Minecraft has racked up so far, in light of current video game success standards where hits are measured in terms of hundreds of millions of dollars, doing so might miss the points Mojang can teach the industry. While any jaded critic can cynically dismiss Minecraft as just a well-executed patchwork of classic video game formulas, the genius that propels the Minecraft phenomenon is how fresh the game feels in the hands of even the most hype-weathered and gimmick-fatigued hardcore gamer. Many players get the feeling that they have not played anything like it.
Minecraft’s lessons to the game industry can be distilled into three core elements: infinity, invention, and the problem of game ownership
While Minecraft’s worlds are not really infinite, the maximum combinations and possibilities offer easily exceed the earth’s surface by thousands of times. Now, that is practical infinity! As a player explores the game world, the game dynamically expands his world in unpredictable ways using an algorithm. You can go in all directions. You can even go forever into a wide range of different terrain combinations. The unpredictability of it all gives one the impression that this virtual space is a real world of vast possibilities where you can’t wait to see what lies beyond the next few steps ahead.
Minecraft’s sense of infinity and possibilities stand in mark contrast to the sense of boundaries most other games have. For all its vast expanses and epic content density, The Elder Scrolls 5 – Skyrim’s borders can often leave gamers with a slight sense of disappointment as they bump up against mountains that are impassable. While we can suspend our disbelief and buy into the reasonable and plausible reasons given for the borders, our immersive experience is still punctured. Minecraft shows that there is a lot of value in a wide open world of possibility that just goes on and on. Playing Minecraft for quite a decent amount of time makes other games feel, well, claustrophobic. The best candidates for Minecraft’s type of near infinite expansion are dungeon crawlers and RPGs. In fact, they could probably be improved by a game system where each play is expansive and different from previous sessions.
Many games focus on having the user create his own game experience. The games Spore and Little Big Planet come to mind. However, spontaneous and creativity-boosting as these games may be, they don’t hold a candle to Minecraft’s extent of player creative control. Every single space in the game can be modified, destroyed, built, or altered by players. Talk about giving players the power to recreate the world in their own image! Minecraft gives players the basic tools and operations, the players use their imaginations to recreate the world. No wonder, there are tons of Minecraft mods and Youtube tutorials.
While Minecraft has a lot to recommend it, it does have one glaring Achille’s heel. It gives its players so much freedom that the world created by one player is left to another player’s destructive tendencies. It would not be unreasonable to think that some players have abandoned certain Minecraft servers because of other players’ destructive actions. Sadly, all the amount of infinity and user creativity discussed above are worthless if the creators have no means to protect their creations. Mojang has yet to walk the fine line between player abuse and freedom in a reassuring way.