Minecraft is the most creative thing you can do with computer games short of stopping playing and starting to build things – and it lets you do that without the “stopping playing” part. The one-man wonder was programmed by Markus “Notch” Persson over the course of a year and is so spectacular it got a shout-out from Valve. When the people behind Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead start saying your game is great, that’s past “compliment” and into “apotheosis.” It’s so successful it’s already got idiotic whiners complaining that he doesn’t update enough.
So what can big developers learn from the little guy?
Gameplay over Graphics
Back in the mists of 16-bit time, there was a huge debate over “Graphics versus Gameplay.” Graphics-fans thought impressive games were much more fun, gameplay-proponents thought they were superior to those shallow fools, but both fell for the company line that developers could only afford one or the other – as if games were an RPG and the developer only had a certain number of skill points to spend. The truth was that small developers couldn’t afford more development time, and big ones didn’t want to.
Behold the visual splendor! Which caused some people to think this was better than Street Fighter 2!
What’s worse is that the graphics won. Absolutely and utterly. Most major series now crow over their incredible visuals, whether it’s the latest Call of Duty or an iteration of the Unreal Engine. That’s no problem – especially when the games are as good as Modern Warfare and Unreal Tournament – but the problem is where they’ve invested millions of dollars in an entire game world, it’s all too easy to add another level and call that a sequel. The first Halo revolutionized the world of first person shooters. Reach just added five powerups, and cost $10 more.
Enjoy it, you got that instead of a better game by your favorite developers
The graphics on a Minecraft server are almost confrontationally ancient. Many cosplayers insult their inspiration by painting cardboard boxes in incredibly inaccurate costumes, but in Minecraft they’re wrong because they have too much detail.
And the shading is far too realistic
And it doesn’t matter. The graphics couldn’t be more pixelated if they were porn on the Disney channel, but after a few minutes you don’t see blocks the size of your face – you see your house you built with your shiny metal pickaxe. And you’re more impressed with that iron tool than you were with Doom’s BFG9000.
This doesn’t meant that modern games should revert to blocks and pixels (besides, we’re already full up on deliberately retro games). The mega-market scale of “being the latest shooter” means they can’t risk looking less than the best. But they’ve got the awesome texture-mapping down to an art, and they’ve shown they can port it from game to game without even pretending to make an effort (we’re looking at you, Madden series). Minecraft servers prove that just one guy can create unbelievably immersive worlds in a year. So why not hire a few more creative types to give those great big graphics teams something worth animating?
Keep Improving Because You Want The Game To Be Good
This is vital, and that’s literally vital as in “to do with life.” The constant improvements have grown Minecraft from a simple sandbox to an ever-expanding world with a real sense of wonder and exploration, of growth and evolution. Life. Of course every company makes an effort to improve their games, but that’s “Keep Improving Because You Want More Money.” Which is a very, very different attitude and can lead to the exact opposite effect.
For example EA “improved” the incredible Modern Warfare series by removing private servers and firing everyone involved in actually making the game. Eidos improved Kane & Lynch for a sequel because they wanted to make at least a bit of money out of the dog’s breakfast of a game, when anyone who wanted to make a good game would have started by building a time machine to erase K & L from history.
Give Players The Game They Bought
This is the big one, and more difficult for large developers to swallow than a sentry gun.
Not to be taken internally
Notch has made over half a million dollars from Minecraft with less electronic security than a stone age village: he has no DRM, no paid updates, no online validation, just this crazy idea that once you buy the game you own the game. Every owner gets all improvements for free, and as far as he’s concerned that’s the end of the story.
Which raises the question: why isn’t it? If you can come up with a good answer please let us know.
Trust The Players
This trust is understanding that gamers are quite capable of doing things – that’s why they’re playing a game instead of watching a movie. Minecraft doesn’t even have a narrative yet, just a world where you can walk around digging dirt and building buckets, and because you can do exactly that it’s more fun than you’d believe. In most modern games opening doors is a delay, a press of the “use” key, and often a poorly disguised loading delay. On a Minecraft server it’s an incredible sense of pride: because you built the door, and the house it’s at the front of, and you’re now in that house instead of being murdered by terrifying green screaming creepers roaming the landscape.
Meanwhile, Call of Duty: Black Ops doesn’t even trust you to shoot the bad guys.
The CoD series has had some awesome sequences, but when it’s possible to complete an entire level without firing your gun – because the writers didn’t want the pesky player to screw up their awesome pacing – you have to ask exactly what a game really is. Is it an electronic wonderland where imagination is the only limit? Or is it a massive graphical update to Simon Says?
Call of Duty: Rainbow Ops