In an age of gaming where studios spend millions crafting a title and then have to fire half the staff because the resulting game didn’t sell a billion copies three seconds after its release, it’s refreshing to see a title like Minecraft garner so much praise and joy.
Minecraft is a Java-based sandbox-adventure game that offers its players the joys of construction, creation, and monster-besting for a mere $13. It looks a little primitive with its blocky graphics, and its constant state of development means it will never yield the polish and perfection of a high-budget title. Nevertheless, 1,333,000 registered users agree: Minecraft is pure happiness.
Minecraft also provides a valuable lesson about what a video game needs to be at its core: Fun. It should provide a sense of accomplishment, regardless of its genre, its budget, or the studio behind it. In today’s industry, it’s easy for developers and players alike to lose themselves in the rush for profits, and the analysis of specs. Minecraft is a reminder for us all: Chill, guy. Relax. Take a rest. Here’s something we can all enjoy.
Minecraft also demonstrates a trait that’s becoming more common in game development: “Build as you go.” Literally. The game is constantly updated and added to while players work their way through it. This is becoming increasingly common with downloadable games. Rare is the iPhone game that isn’t updated with new levels, options, or bug fixes. The very same happens to Java-based social games on Facebook, such as FarmVille and FrontierVille. In fact, developers like Brian Reynolds have expressed considerable pleasure at the actual ability to add to a game on the fly. It allows for the implementation of new ideas and fixes right away, instead of having to wait for the development and distribution of a sequel.
“Build as you go” is a vital development strategy for indie studios, which can buckle under if a game that’s built, sealed, and delivered to retail fails to capture the interest of its audience. But what about larger studios? Should they allow themselves to slow down a little and try out this development strategy that Mojang Specifications has perfected? What if Rockstar developed a Grand Theft Auto game that centered around a city that was always added to, and never ended (versus the complete, downloadable “Episodes” that typically extend the life of a Grand Theft Auto title)? The end product might even prove less overwhelming to explore, as some critics complained that Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV was just a bit too large to take in all at once.
It’s an interesting thought, and there’s nothing wrong with trying it out, but currently, it won’t work as a permanent replacement for the big-budget studio release–especially since people expect certain standards from large studios and established franchises. It’s okay for Minecraft to look like a 486 PC throwback because the game’s concept doesn’t demand high-resolution graphics. If Rockstar was in fact motivated to try the same design concept with Grand Theft Auto, a series that has long been admired for its presentation as much as its gameplay, there would be considerable backlash. Social games don’t burn too many resources on graphics because the focus is actually on the constant improvement of gameplay.
So for now, Minecraft works well as Minecraft, and big-budget titles will remain as high-profile retail releases. But over the years, as technology improves, the two worlds may well cross, and it will be interesting to experience the results.