If you deny that Minecraft is an incredibly addictive game, then you are wrong. However, I suspect that if you do, then you are clearly too stubborn to listen to the evidence around you, so this is not for you. Please go and play… whatever it is people play these days when they’re not playing Minecraft. I guess that’s Call of Duty or something.
The fact is that it has swept the internet like no other game; not since the infamous spread of World of Warcraft has a titled been gifted with the prized “One more time, oh look at that, it’s three in the morning again.” reward. I can recall my own beginnings - from the early days of Creative mode, buying the early Alpha and building small, inconsequential houses and castles, to the bigger and more ambitious projects, then finally to the Linux Outlaws server, and constructions of mind-boggling scale and brilliance.
But why? When you look at the monotony of mining and construction, not to mention the eye-melting sharp lines of the graphics, it seems hard to believe Minecraft’s inherent popularity. What really makes it so great? I was thinking this myself for some time, and I think I’ve isolated a few reasons.
1. Creativity + Limits
Games which exercise creativity always enjoy shining - but brief - moments in the spotlight - there’s a small bit of our brain, I have no doubt, that revels in making things. Some people write books, or make Lego replicas of the Firefly cast, or put together model helicopters. Others can be found in a lonely corner of a Minecraft server, making pixel art, fortresses, mechanisms, and so on.
But this on its own wasn’t really enough to catapult Minecraft into the millions. The original Creative mode was nice, but it wasn’t a sensation; once you’d gotten over the terraforming novelty, it pretty quickly became a dull drive, filled with roving gangs of trolls and arguments over map space. No, what really set Minecraft on its way was the addition of difficulty.
All of a sudden, it was a real upward slog; you couldn’t summon up a hundred blocks of stone in an instant, oh no - you had to mine the bloody things yourself! And mind the monsters that come out at night, ‘cause they’ll shoot you with arrows and then gib your corpse. You’ll need an axe for those trees! And a pick for the rocks! Now build up a house! Find some more blocks!
The upshot all of a sudden was that effort went into peoples’ creations, which made all the difference: The appreciation that you hold for what you make is in direct proportion to the amount of work you actually put into it - if you can create, on demand, a scale model of the Combine Citadel out of solid obsidian, then nobody is really going to care because anybody could have done it with five minutes’ work and a bit of imagination; on the other hand, if you did it in Minecraft SMP then it would surely acquire some hefty appreciation, owing to the amount of time you must have spent mining the materials required. Minecraft surely knows this, which is surely also the reason it makes mining a difficult and dangerous task - because the shining mineral rewards took so much work to acquire.
2. Constantly added content
It doesn’t matter how amazing a game is on release, its popularity shall wane as all avenues of possible usage are explored. There are two ways, if you are a developer, to ensure people keep playing: a) add mod support, or b) add content yourself. Mojang already does b), and a) was inevitable, albeit difficult for the community to implement. Look over the Minecraft forums, and you will notice a shocking proliferation of user-made content. Simple things like texture packs, ranging right up to new blocks, physics modifiers, items, weapons, generators, mappers, hacks, animals, monsters, custom clients… the list goes on and on. There’s even a Portal gun. Eventually Mojang releases their own official content, which of course gets incorporated into the game by default, and recently they’ve even been taking ideas from the community. Nice work, guys - make like Valve and start hiring modders.
Anyway, because of this, new avenues of gameplay are always opening up. A single new block can open up possibilities for months, especially if it affects game physics like the upcoming piston. Even if you grow bored of the vanilla game, the sheer number of mods means that you’ll never run out of new things to try - assuming you can get them to work! (*cough* official mod support coming soon apparently)
And if you get bored of all that, you can just watch the Yogscast. Gods bless ‘em.
3. The Dark Side
Playing a sandbox is all very well, but this is still a game - it needs the element of danger. Without the possibility of failure, any kind of success is somewhat diminished. And so, one of the first things that came from the Indev versions of Minecraft was a health bar, and some monsters. We know them now, lovably: Creepers, spiders, skeletons, zombies, ghasts and slimes. When night falls, or when you enter the darkness, they’ll be waiting there for you, and it’s fear of them that really jump-starts the urge to build bigger and better; you’ll start off making a little shack, or a hole in the ground, maybe with some torches and a bed if you’re lucky, but it’s not much fun to hide from spiders in, there’s no storage space and the toilet stinks, so you upgrade and build a bigger house with separate rooms and some nice paintings, but the creepers are still at the door. You’re sick of coming home after a day in the mines and finding the wall in pieces, so you save up your precious stone and build a big fortress, but even when you’re mostly safe, you’re still hooked on the idea of bigger and better…
Oh, and don’t think that putting the game on ‘peaceful’ solves all this. Mining in the wrong place will still leave you with a faceful of lava, and falling off cliffs can really hurt. Honestly, without the prospect of failure, there’s really no drive to succeed.
After thinking about this, it’s no wonder that people love Notch - he could have exploited this at so many opportunities, from monthly subscriptions to online stores, (as in the April Fools joke) but he hasn’t, probably because the money from all the grateful buyers is more than enough but also, more likely, because he’s a really cool guy. With an awesome beard.