Friday, October 22, 2010

Minecraft, Striking the Alpha Lode

minecraftSometimes reviewing a game is a piece of cake":  “Space Marine Shooter X rehashes all the worst elements of better games,” or “Niche Downloadable Title Y turns a tried-and-true genre on its head and offers enough unique modes to bring you back for me.”  It’s a success or a failure.  End of story.

Occasionally, it’s a bit tougher.  Hype plays a huge role in game coverage – I’ll go out on a limb and say that hardcore gamers are subjected to more opinion-clouding hype than dedicated fans of any medium (excerpt perhaps art collectors) – such a huge role, in fact, that it becomes difficult to separate your initial impressions of/hopes for a game from the actual game you’re playing.  I struggled to check my fanboy at the door when we ran our Starcraft II review, and I tried desperately to find something good to say about Divinity II: Ego Draconis despite hearing much to the contrary before I popped it in.

Items (products, games, art, etc.) under review always deserve a fair shake.  People pour their hearts (or at least hours of their lives) into things, only to have armchair designers critique each and every choice they made. 

But what about unfinished products?  How do you review games that aren’t even in beta yet, despite having sold hundreds of thousands of copies? 

Of course, I’m talking about Minecraft.

For those who missed my podcast rant about Minecraft a few weeks ago, allow me to inform you that it is the sandboxiest sandbox game that’s ever been (how’s that for hype?).  The game controls in first-person, and the entire world is rendered in one-meter blocks.  Punching a block of sand will yield sand that you can pick up and place somewhere else, assuming you wanted to build something out of sand.  Punching a tree gives you wood that can be crafted into things, which then lets you break stone that can be crafted into other things, and so on down the line.  Crafting system aside, Minecraft’s randomly-generated world affords you the opportunity to build any structure you want out of the materials provided – like LEGOs, without all that crazy robot shitCraig's Minecraft GardenAs of yet there are no objectives.  Monsters come out at night, so I suppose you could say “staying alive” is priority number one.  But really it’s just about having fun collecting and creating things.  Of course, there’s no tutorial.  So if you want to get the most out of Minecraft, you’d best keep several tabs of the wiki open for your first couple hours.  The community will point you in the direction of workbenches, boats, and swords – all necessities for surviving in the depths.

My positive summary aside, I’m not quite sure if it’s possible to “review” Minecraft.  According to the game’s developer, Markus Persson, it’s still in alpha.  Purchasing it now at a reduced rate assures you access to all future iterations of the game.   And because it’s still in alpha, stuff breaks (sound will go down if the servers get too crowded; the game went free one weekend because PayPal was skeptical of the flood of orders after Minecraft received the Penny Arcade bump.) 

On the other hand, its alpha status means Persson is nowhere near done adding to the game.  One wonders if the ridiculous sales numbers would cause him to slack off in development, and just this week, angry Minecraft fans launched denial of service attacks on the game, citing the lack of recent updates as motivation.  However, Persson’s been outspoken about his desire to continue to upgrade his game.  He even expanded his staff (from himself to a handful) after this month’s sales spike.  Planned updates include the forthcoming Halloween patch, which adds some kind of bizarre hell world fast travel, fishing, and new monsters, among other things.  There’s also been talk of adding actual goals to the game in the form of an Adventure mode.  For now I’ll welcome all the content Persson can muster, but there may come a time when Persson’s creativity sullies Minecraft’s raw potential for fun.

My First HouseBecause what is Minecraft if not pure, unbridled potential?  Here’s a developer who created a simple game that’s taken the indie realm by storm.  The runaway success means he can take it wherever he wants.  The game itself presents a few constraints then gets the hell out of your way.  If you look at the concept, Minecraft appears as little more than a tedious level editor. But there’s something about building in the first-person that makes it feel like you’re accomplishing something, not just dicking around in a three-dimensional Photoshop.

I feel a great sense of ownership over the buildings I’ve made (however puny) in Minecraft.  I had to mine that ore myself, smelt it into the proper materials, and place each brick by hand.  So I can fully understand why this guy completely lost it when he accidentally burned his house down.  Or why this guy’s geeking out over the fully-functioning 16-bit ALU he made with Minecraft’s rudimentary circuitry mechanics.  One user imported a schematic into Minecraft, creating a 1:1 replica of the Starship Enterprise, and he wants help filling it in but is paranoid about griefers.  I’d be paranoid too if I had a freaking Enterprise in my Minecraft

It doesn’t have goals, levels, organized competition, scores, or a final boss.  Hell, it’s not even finished.  Minecraft’s lone selling point is (and should be) its potential for primal fun.  Break this, build that.  Dig here, explore there.  And it’s only going to get deeper.

You can purchase the  Minecraft alpha for PC over at the official site (assuming the servers aren’t down) for €9.95 or roughly $13.  Skeptics can try the free-to-play Classic mode and should watch this video if they have any lingering doubts: