Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Obscuring the Word of Notch: Minecraft and the Xbox 360

notchOne of the few true surprises of last week’s Microsoft E3 keynote was the announcement of Minecraft for the Xbox 360. We’ve talked a lot about Minecraft on this site, and with good reason. Its accessibility, its LEGO-like appeal, its constant stream of new content: they all keep Minecraft fresh and appealing months after its initial “release”. Odds are, that as I type this, someone on our writing staff is building or planning to build a new crazy structure on our multiplayer server.

Minecraft for the 360 makes a certain amount of fiscal sense. Let’s assume it’s a downloadable release. According to Xbox mouthpiece Major Nelson, Xbox Live has 35 million active users. If even 10% of them buy Minecraft (a tall order, no doubt), that would more than double the current number of paid Minecraft accounts (roughly 2.5 million).

Making the deal more enticing is the rumor that Minecraft would feature cross-platform play. You could play on your PC; I’d join you from my 360.

On paper, everybody wins. But a closer look at the logistics required for this to work makes me wonder if we aren’t undercutting one of Minecraft’s primary appeals: the undiluted whims of its creator, Notch.

To give credit where it’s due, I hadn’t thought much about this until I heard independent developer Jonathan Blow talking on the first of Giant Bomb’s E3 live streams. Speaking to two Microsoft employees, Blow criticized the rigorous certification process that must be traversed by anyone looking to sell a game in the Xbox Live Marketplace. He recalled his own troubles patching his Live Arcade hit Braid and speculated that he may make Steam/iOS the lead platform for his next game, The Marriage. Blow then pointed to Minecraft’s rapid, nonstop development process (the game is in Beta, after all) and wondered aloud if Microsoft certification wouldn’t bring that to a screeching halt.minecraft-fire

Minecraft’s creator Notch is rarely not iterating on his game. Though still currently in Beta, Minecraft’s already up to version 1.6.6 – those last .1-6 coming in a flurry of updates Notch made to fix the bugs created by the ambitious 1.6 patch. Notch is now working furiously on version 1.7, the so-called “Adventure Update”, which will add greater structure and goals to the build-and-explore gameplay. Attempting to play Minecraft during a turbulent period of updates can be frustrating (“Why does every item I pick up now break after one use?!”), but Notch is nothing if not honest and approachable to his 200-some thousand followers on Twitter and on his blog, the aptly titled “The Word of Notch”.

When I first “reviewedMinecraft, I called the meta elements – a fervent community, the in-depth wikis, the work-in-process aesthetic, Notch’s nerd mystique – integral to the experience. If you aren’t on a multiplayer server with friends, Minecraft can be a lonely experience. The wealth of material online lessens that loneliness. Notch’s accessibility keeps us engaged, excited for each and every update. And don’t forget either that everyone who’s currently paid for Minecraft is essentially an investor in the game’s future, an investor who expects repayment in the form of inventive, high-quality content.

The possibility space surrounding Minecraft gives these “investors” a unique sense of ownership over the game. Back in April, Notch announced plans to charge for the Minecraft modification API (for laymen: the code that users could use to create their own versions of and takes on the game – for reference, Counter-Strike was originally a mod for Half-Life). The community erupted in fury, and Notch relented. Modders wouldn’t need to pay, but they’d at least need to apply for rights to the API.

minecraft teacherA game as malleable as Minecraft benefits from this open source treatment. The Minecraft Teacher is a perfect example. While he isn’t modding the game exactly, Joel Levin currently runs his own Minecraft server to teach elementary school computer students about teamwork and problem-solving. Not only are players creating wonders out of the materials inside Minecraft, they’re creating things with Minecraft itself.

Larger developers and publishers would kill to have that kind of relationship with their customers. EA holds an E3 event and talks about Origin, their new digital storefront. They talk about transforming games from products into experiences, keeping players involved with their favorite franchises. Activision launches Call of Duty Elite, a web site/service suite designed to keep Call of Duty fans playing Call of Duty all the Call of Duty time. The CoD Elite subscription option offers all future downloadable map packs for “free” – the subscription is little more than an upfront DLC transaction. Notch, one man, essentially said, “I made this game. I want to make it bigger. Toss me some money to help out, and I’ll tell you what’s coming next.”

Minecraft for the Xbox 360 cannot foster this type of relationship. Its release window – “This winter!” – coincides with Minecraft’s official release date 11/11/11 (Update: Notch recently said he’s considering pushing the release back a week for convention purposes). This is ostensibly when Notch will cease the perpetual development cycle and declare the game “finished”. Though an outside developer will be handling the port, Notch will be the credited “game designer” and his official release will likely be the version they work from.

minecraft-for-kinect-e3-2011

But what about when Notch wants to change something? Or provide the post-release content he promised all of us Alpha and Beta purchasers? There’s nothing preventing him from feeding that immediately into the PC version, but Microsoft’s certification process could stand in the way for 360 players. And the dream of cross-platform play requires catering to the lowest common denominator. Xbox Live simply isn’t a nimble enough platform to keep up with the frenetic world of PC indie development.

Notch said in his latest blog post that Minecraft for 360 “will be new version of the game, designed specifically for console play.” He also called it “a 360 exclusive title.” He made no mention of cross-platform play, which leads me to believe he’s smart enough not to pursue something that could potentially harm his game.

It’s bad enough that Microsoft’s red tape could deprive 360 players of the fun of being an avid Minecraft fan, the joy of testing out new features and interacting directly with the freshly-picked fruits of an artistic mind. There’s no reason it should ruin that experience for everyone else.

Author’s Note: All mentions of the “PC version” of Minecraft could be substituted with “Mac OSX version” or “Linux version”. It’s just easier to use one platform name instead of three when using it in rapid succession. Though, in the bizarro universe where cross-platform play did happen, I imagine communication between the Xbox 360 and a PC would be easier than anything else.