From The Erbo Files
Saturday, June 30, 2012

It's been quiet around here this past month, because, unfortunately, I've found something new that acts as a pretty good time sink. That something? Minecraft.

Alpha 2, a Minecraft world

The game has been out for a while on PC, but I hadn't really seen it, other than hearing from Sabrina's friend Sheila about how her kids were obsessed with it. When they introduced it on Xbox, I had some MSPs lying around, so I downloaded it just to see what all the hubbub was about. Soon I was hooked. Sabrina complained, so I gave her the MSPs to get it on her Xbox. Soon, she was hooked. We then got more points for her friend Sheila to get it on their family's Xbox. And then she was hooked.

Are you starting to get an idea that this game might be, well, somewhat compelling?

In fact, in the first activity report Major Nelson released for Xbox Live after Minecraft was introduced, it had grown to be, not merely the most popular Arcade title on the service, but the third most popular game of any type, beat out only by Call of Duty: Black Ops and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. One week later, it had surpassed Black Ops to become the second most popular game on Xbox Live...and it still holds that position a month later. This, mind you, only marks the popularity of the Xbox 360 version of the game...not for the PC version (estimated sales over 6 million) or the "Pocket Edition" available for iOS and Android devices (the iOS version still ranks as #21 on the "Top Paid Apps" on the iOS App Store, despite selling for a much higher price than most paid $6.99, it's the only app in the top 25 to cost more than $1).

So how can I describe it? Tycho of Penny Arcade has said, "I have heard [Gabriel] suggest that the game is crack, but it’s more like all of the ingredients and equipment that you need to make crack, which I’d say is worse." But that doesn't begin to describe it.

Physically, Minecraft is something like a "survival-adventure" type of game. Start a game, and you're dropped down in the middle of a very low-resolution world, with nothing but your bare hands. And you'd better get busy, too, because soon enough, night will fall...and that's when the monsters come out, including zombies, arrow-shooting skeletons, and the infamous Creepers, which sneak up on you and explode, taking part of the landscape--and maybe you--with them. To combat this, the game gives you the ability to mine the landscape for useful materials, and to craft these materials into other, useful objects (hence the name). You start by punching trees (literally) to get blocks of wood, which you can make into planks. With these planks, you can make a "crafting table," which gives you more options as to what you can make by using it. Then you can use wood planks, and sticks, which you make from planks, to make a wooden pickaxe. With this, you can mine into solid rock, turning it into cobblestone...and from that and more sticks, you can make a better pickaxe, allowing you to mine faster. You can also make axes, for cutting down trees more effectively, shovels, for digging into sand, dirt, or gravel, and swords, for when hiding from the monsters is not enough. Soon, you'll be making a furnace out of cobblestone, which you can fuel with wood planks or--when you find it--coal, and which can heat things to make other things (such as glass, from sand). Using all of these, you can build a shelter to keep you safe from the monsters at night.

As you progress, there are more things to find, such as, deep within the earth, not merely coal, but iron ore (which you smelt in a furnace to make iron ingots, which can be used to make better tools and other things), gold ore (smelted like iron ore, and also useful in crafting, though not as much as you might think), diamonds (which can be used to make powerful tools, weapons, and armor), and the mysterious "redstone" (the basis of much of Minecraft's "technology," such as it is). You'll also encounter hazards like underground dungeons full of monsters (and chests of goodies), pools of water (yes, you can drown in it), and pools of hot lava (deadly if you fall into it). Cool that lava with a bucket of water, though, and you get the nearly indestructible obsidian. Mine that obsidian with a diamond pickaxe, then arrange it into a rectangular frame of the right size and light it "on fire" with a flint and steel, and you've created a portal to "The Nether," a Hell-like dimension with its own hazardous denizens, weird materials, and rewards.

There is an ultimate goal--to visit another dimension called "The End" and defeat the mighty Enderdragon contained within--but I don't know if that's even accessible via the Xbox version yet, which lags the PC version by a number of revisions. But what you can do is make use of the game's crafting abilities to build many things, like a primitive version of Second Life. Build massive buildings, huge underground complexes, road and rail systems, even primitive computers with redstone-based logic gates. The ultimate limits are only time and your imagination. (And perhaps available space...though the PC versions offer a virtually-unlimited size world, the Xbox versions impose limits on the size of a world. They're still pretty large though.)

You can generate as many new worlds as you like and play around in each; this is what Sabrina has done, for the most part. I, however, have chosen to spend most of my time in one world, one I created pretty early on--hence its name, "Alpha 2." Alpha 2 now even has its own geographic nomenclature, both for terrain features and for structures. It has a road system (complete with bridges over water) and the beginnings of a rail system, a number of buildings, and a number of mines (most of them with many signs to point the way to the exit--getting lost underground can be a real problem!) And there's the odd sentimental gesture:

Stephen's Point, on the Eastern Peninsula in Alpha 2.

This is a monument to my late brother Stephen who died four years ago. Accordingly, this geographic feature is "Stephen's Point," at the very end of the Eastern Peninsula, past the Eastern Outpost and the "End-of-the-World Mine." I think he might have appreciated it.

Minecraft is a prototypical "indie game made good," similar to Angry Birds in that respect. Whereas Angry Birds came from Finland, Minecraft hails from Sweden, having been created by Markus "Notch" Persson and now being developed by his company Mojang AB. The PC version of the game is actually written in Java, which piques my interest as I'm not entirely sure how anyone would do that. (There are libraries involved, some of which go back to a failed Sun project to make a Java MMO.) The game, like any moderately-complex game, has its own Wiki to help explain everything, which makes me glad that my Xbox is right next to my desktop system.

What's playing it like? It can be rather relaxing to dig through the Earth, put something together, or just wander around and sightsee...which is enhanced by the soft ambient soundtrack supplied by German composer C418. It also sucks you in, kind of like Civilization...and those that know me should now be going, "Yikes!", as Civilization is one of my major gaming weaknesses, the kind of game where I can start playing at 6:00 PM, and next thing I know..."Oh, is that the sun rising?" This is especially true if both Sabrina and I are playing, as it's hard to stop either of us when we get on a roll. (Sabrina has contributed much to Alpha 2...among other things, she discovered the elusive clay blocks. Her friend Sheila has visited, too, and has her own "house" on Alpha 2, a wood structure in the middle of the Eastern Peninsula.) Take Yahtzee's advice, and give yourself a project; it helps you appreciate the game more.

Recommended...just don't blame me if you, too, get sucked in.  See you in the mines!

Copyright © 2012 Eric J. Bowersox, All Rights Reserved.
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