The era of the rampage is officially over.
In 2001, Grand Theft Auto III introduced a mass audience to a new way of experiencing the world of a game: Instead of walking narrow corridors or outdoor environments that felt hemmed in by invisible walls and artificial barriers, you could explore a vast city.
Back then, the ability to wreak havoc in a wide-open space was enough. For decades video games were linear affairs, fraught with difficulty. Find yourself stumped by a tricky puzzle or brutal boss battle and you were left with nothing to do. Video games were rife with dead ends. Grand Theft Auto III helped change all that. Sure, the game had a plot. But you weren't limited to chasing the story. Players who found themselves stuck could blow off steam by stealing a car, blowing stuff up with a rocket launcher or punching a random pedestrian. But the kind of freedom Rockstar's blockbuster offered was ultimately limited. Players could roam a vast world, but their only meaningful way to interact with that world was to cause trouble.
The message was loud and clear, though. Players wanted more agency in their videogames – less hard and fast goals and more freedom to find fun in their own way
But what's a gamer to do when there is no princesses to rescue or universe to save? If you're one of the millions playing the wildly successful independent game Minecraft, you build. The game, from developer Mojang, seems to go against the grain of contemporary video games. Rather than concentrate on action, Minecraft leverages player creativity and curiosity to generate fun.
Playing Minecraft is like being dropped into a sprawling world made of Legos with no road-map. After years of playing games with hard and fast goals the rudderless sensation can be disarming. It doesn't help that Minecraft has no tutorial or in-game instructions. It's just you in a pristine Eden, comprised of winding waterways, verdant forests and jutting mountains Swiss-cheesed with networks of caverns. It is not uncommon for the first-time Minecraft player to think, “What now?”
Minecraft's adventure mode is about survival. Players are dropped, empty handed, into a vast, randomly generated world. Their first task is to make tools and shelter. Because when the sun sets the monsters come out. Players scrounge for wood and stone, craft a workbench and begin the gradual process of gearing up. Here is where Minecraft is most conventional – there's a rigid progression from building tools out of wood and stone to eventually mining diamonds, constructing working railroads and magical portals that can transport players to other dimensions. Once the player has built a workshop and a fortress to protect them from wandering zombies, spiders and Creepers the game tilts towards the creative. Players are free to proceed how the choose – they can gather resources, develop their base of operations or strike out into the world, looking for new adventure. It's this undirected freedom that keeps millions occupied.
That aimless feeling hasn't stopped fans from finding their own fun in Minecraft's procedurally generated worlds. The secret to Minecraft's stickiness is the voxel – the three-dimensional cousin of the pixel. It only takes one glance at the chunky, retro look of Minecraft to understand that the game isn't interested in verisimilitude. Minecraft doesn't want to trick you into thinking that you're in a world just like ours. When you see all those voxels, each like an individual Lego – one of millions of building blocks that make up the world – it is hard not to be inspired. Think of Minecraft as a God game, where the player has the ability to shape the world the way they choose, played at ground level. And to that end players can play together via online servers where they collaborate to build wonders. Some servers are geared towards pure creation, where resources are unlimited and monster never interfere.
The most ambitious have used Minecraft's voxels to build working computers and replicas of Star Trek the Next Generation's Enterprise. But the activity loop of exploration, resource gathering and creation has proven entertaining for gamers of all stripes. Obsessive compulsive disorder isn't a prerequisite for enjoying Minecraft.
A classic of the Minecraft YouTube video genre
As much as Mojang and creator Markus “Notch” Persson have innovated with Minecraft much of the credit for the game's success goes to the people who play it. The game's long gestation period and open-ended style of play has inspired a legion of fans and supporters with the enthusiasm of evangelists. Mojang didn't need to buy ads or produce commercials to land 20 million players. Their user base grew virally. Crowd-sourced Minecraft Wikis offer clear instructions for the Minecraft newbie. And millions of user-generated YouTube videos offer glimpses of awe-inspiring Minecraft creations, allowing inspiration and creativity to spread virally. In 2010 Minecraft fans spontaneously gathered in Bellevue, Washington, to meet Persson and other like-minded Minecrafters. The off-the cuff meet-up only attracted fifty or so fans, but became a seed which would germinate into something bigger. In 2011 4,500 Minecraft fans from 23 different countries gathered in Las Vegas for MineCon – the first official convention for the game's growing legions of aficionados. In 2012, a version for XBox and Kinect is expected.
Minecraft's success story has proven inspirational to other game designers. The influence is most obviously felt among the scads of so-called Minecraft clones. Since Minecraft entered public beta testing in 2009 dozens upon dozens of imitators have cropped up. Some are straight up copies. But many others use Minecraft as a starting point and create something entirely new. Terrarria, the two-dimensional side-scroller from indie studio Re-Logic, melds Minecraft with retro games like Metroid and Castlevania. And it isn't just independent game makers who are taking the lessons of Minecraft to heart. The recently announced Fortnite from Gears of War studio Epic Games will allow players to build their own fortresses to help them survive nighttime waves of zombies.
The great contribution of Minecraft and the many games that will come after it is to fundamentally change what players can expect to do in the videogame worlds they visit. From here on out more and more players won't be asking, “what can I blow up?” Instead they'll be wondering, “what can I build?” That's real, constructive change.
This is genuinely amazing.