How Minecraft is taking over the world

Last year, my then 8-year-old son discovered Minecraft. It was a revelation to him and to me. Here was an idie-developed game that had become a hit by creating a virtual world that looked like it was using graphics from the early 1980s. Blocky, chunky, and simple. It quickly became an obsession with him, and now, around the world.

On Friday, I wrote a post updating the juggernaut that Minecraft has become. But I thought I’d share my column from Nov. 2011 that explains just what this game is, and why we find it so incredible.

By Chris O’Brien

My introduction to Minecraft came just three months ago when two friends of my 8-year-old son were at our house. Somehow, against my better judgment, they badgered me into spending about 20 bucks to download a game they were simply dying to play with my son.

Now Minecraft dominates his every waking thought, along with those of a surprising number of his friends.

This might be the first time you’re reading about Minecraft, but trust me, it’s not going to be the last. The game has been available in beta form for about two years, has been downloaded more than 4 million times and counts around 15 million players.

Created by Swedish programmer Markus Alexej Persson, 32, aka “Notch,” the game has become a global phenomenon. And this weekend the community spawned by Minecraft will converge on Las Vegas for MineCon, the game’s first global conference, where Notch will release the first official version of Minecraft.

“It literally just exploded,” said Alex Leavitt, of the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, who has been studying it intently, trying to understand the dynamics behind Minecraft’s rise. “And the crazy thing is, the game hasn’t even been finished.”

With the first complete version being released, including a version for Microsoft’s XBox, that growth curve is about to get a whole lot steeper. But beyond the feverish grip it has on my son, Minecraft intrigues me because it has succeeded by defying nearly all the conventional wisdom about video games.

The game has won legions of fans thanks to its deceptive simplicity. Rather than walking into a virtual world where all the spaces have been filled in by a developer, Minecraft introduces a world that is a blank canvas where players build just about everything. The prospect of filling those empty spaces allows players’ imaginations to run wild.

When I asked my son, Liam, what he loved about Minecraft, he said: “You can play with all of your friends at the same time. And you can build anything you want.”

That fundamental appeal is reflected in the game’s look. The design of the game is almost laughably primitive. In an era where achieving hyper-realism appears to be the main goal of most high-end video games, Minecraft’s look and feel appear to be plucked right out of the post-Pong world, something that might have been at home on the first Atari home console.

Minecraft’s graphics are based on blocks, with not a curved line in site. The best reference may be Legos. The user grabs a tool and then either erases a block to dig a hole or creates a stack of blocks to build walls, houses, towers, just about anything you can imagine.

At its basic level, that’s about it. There are no elaborate game mechanics, no quests or points or levels to achieve that make most games compelling and addictive. People have created thousands of “mods” that can add various competitions or quests, but at its heart, Minecraft is mainly an exploratory place.

“The experience is really about the things you make and the things you can imagine,” said Jamin Warren, founder of Kill Screen, a video game arts and culture company. “That turns out to be a very powerful tool.”

As I noted, the game also bucks the current trend of free-to-play games such as “FarmVille.” While there is an older “classic” version of Minecraft that is free, the current version costs $21.95. In a post on his blog called, “I hate ‘free-to-play,’ ” Notch made it clear he feels such games are really geared toward making players into addicts who will cough up money down the line.

The people who like that model are “mostly game developers, not game players,” he wrote.

I tried to reach Notch for several weeks, but a representative of his company said he was too swamped finishing up the next release and preparing for MineCon.

It’s simply remarkable that all of these kids like my son discovered Minecraft. The typical way such things go viral is to build on a platform like Facebook. But Minecraft is linked to no social networks, though when you see your kids plotting elaborate structures together or playing remotely and chatting in Minecraft, you realize it is extremely social in its own way.

In this case, it seems word of Minecraft spread through fan videos posted on YouTube. Leavitt noted that in September 2010 he found about 14,000 Minecraft videos on YouTube, and then watched that number jump to 400,000 two months later, when the game just seemed to catch fire.

Several educators have even started a initiative to find ways to use the game in schools.

When Notch takes the stage Friday, I suspect he’ll get a rousing ovation from his fans. It will be well deserved, both for creating a game they love, but also by breaking all the rules to do it.

HOW TO PLAY MINECRAFT: There are two versions: single player or multiplayer. The latter requires setting up or connecting to a server. Next, you pick “creative” or “survival” mode. In creative mode, it’s a nonthreatening world where a player simply builds structures or digs far underground to carve out mines. The player can select different materials and different tools. From there, the imagination is the limit. In “survival” mode, a player begins by swimming to land and needs to build a shelter before the sun goes down. After sunset, creatures come out and might attack the player, unless he or she is protected in a well-lit structure. Over time, the player collects more elaborate tools and materials to create even more fantastic structures.



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