Some people have claimed that all I do is criticize games. These people are right. I usually stick to analyzing the flaws in games because that's where most of the interesting conversations are found. If you look over the history of my column you'll see me complaining about DRM, bad gameplay mechanics, Digital Rights Management, idiot publishers, copy protection, bad storytelling, anti-piracy software, graphics obsession, and online activation. This has led some people to the conclusion that I just enjoy complaining. Let me counter that by saying something nice for a change:
I love Minecraft.
Of course, I'm only saying nice things about Minecraft so I can complain about everything else ...
Minecraft is a hadoken-style rebuke to the absurd things the rest of the industry has been doing. It ignores the conventional wisdom of the industry and manages to be fun and profitable. I'm sure you've spotted Minecraft in the news by now. Minecraft is taking the indie gaming scene by storm. It's still in development and it reportedly makes over a quarter of a million dollars a day for developer Markus Persson, who is a guy and not a company. (Although rumor is that he's starting one.)
Lots of games claim to be a "sandbox game" because they'll let you do certain groups of pre-determined missions in a certain order, after you've unlocked them, as long as you've met the prerequisites. Minecraft is a real sandbox game. Dig the earth. Gather resources. Use the resources to craft tools. Build buildings. Make a house. Go all Mines of Moria and see if you can dig to the center of the earth. Grow trees. Hunt for rare minerals. Or turn on hard mode and see if you can build a fortress strong enough to withstand the zombie horde. Minecraft makes the average sandbox game look about as non-linear as Contra.
The world is made out of cubes. Everything. The hills are cubes. The trees are cubes. Even the sun and clouds seem to be made of blocks. Graphically, it gives the impression of an early 90s PC game. The chunky environment is decorated with big blocky pixels. Games have spent the last two decades trying to escape the rigid grid of Wolfenstein 3D, and suddenly a game comes along that not only operates on a huge grid, but embraces it and makes it the center of its art style. It would be effortless to make the textures sharper, but would sacrifice the look that makes the world so charming. Some people say the game looks "primitive," but as someone who has written software to run an immense simulated 3D world, I can tell you this is not a primitive world. It's just spending its computing power on something besides graphics.
But Minecraft isn't just a graphical anachronism. It's also a throwback to those anarchic days of the 90s before our current genres were solidified and developers were eager to try crazy new things. There is no big-budget game out there that even resembles Minecraft. This is a new idea. We don't get to see those very often.
Red Faction might brag that (some of) its walls are destructible. And a few other games let the player morph the terrain within certain limits. But in Minecraft the entire world is mutable. Build castles. Construct a dam. Grow trees. Build a working train. Tear down mountains. (That last one might take you a while.) There is no game more dynamic than Minecraft.
One guy, alone, has made a game which is more interesting, cheaper, and has better replay value than games that took an entire studio full of pixel-pushers and codemonkeys to produce. It's also amazingly popular despite having no marketing behind it at all. And the game is profitable even by AAA game standards. This is exactly the kind of thing you can't pull off when you're enamored of buying development houses for hundreds of millions so you can then spend tens of millions of dollars to make sequels of clones of games that were getting old a decade ago.
Do check out the free demo and see what all the fuss is about.
(Also, what is it with all games that have "craft" in their name being awesome? World of Warcraft. Starcraft. Now Minecraft. Publishers: I have this idea for a game I'm working on, I'm calling it "Craft of Craftcraft." Let me know if you want in. )