I first started playing Minecraft several years ago. I heard about the game on a blogger's website, and I thought I'd give it a try. At the time, Markus "Notch" Persson was selling the unfinished game for $10 with the promise that any future updates would be free to those who decided to support the game in its beta form. A few weeks after buying it, I read an article announcing the game passed 1 million sales.
The world has plenty of indie games. While many quality titles manage to break the 1 million sales mark, very few go beyond that. The fact that Minecraft has managed to sell over 20 million copies between the PC, XBLA, and smartphone versions is remarkable. So, what makes this game so special? Is it just a goofy block-building game, or is there more to it?
Most gamers have at least heard of Minecraft. The game is comprised of two basic modes: survival mode and creative mode. Most people know the game for its creative mode where players can build anything they want. During Minecraft's infancy, the game got a lot of attention based on creative-mode videos that showed player-made castles, spaceships, complex roller-coasters, and all sorts of architectural feats. For many, the creative mode was enough. In fact, there was a time (I'm not sure if it is still the case) that people were allowed to download and play creative mode for free, while survival mode still required you to buy a copy of the game.
As for me, I'm not the sort who likes to just build. I didn't buy Minecraft for the creative mode. In fact, I've only used it once, just to try it out. Survival mode is what caught my eye. You can still build whatever you want, but you must go out and get the materials yourself while trying to stay alive. Sound easy? It's not. The world of Minecraft is a dangerous place, and with each update to the game, the designers added more and more danger. It's not just the silent, explosive Creepers or the expert sniper skeletons. There's the danger of starving to death or getting sucked into an underwater vortex or accidentally dropping into a pool of lava or falling off a cliff or being crushed by a cave-in or being poisoned by cave spiders.
There's an addictive tension created by the game's core design: stay alive while trying to thrive. Sure, you could pass each day simply getting food and going back to your home to sleep and hide from monsters. Sure, you never, ever HAVE to mine into the earth. But wouldn't it be fun to venture out further? Oh! You found some cows. Kill 'em and use their leather hide to make some armor. There, isn't it nice being a bit safer? Maybe it would be fun to do some mining, after all. Oh! You found some iron. Now you can build a better sword and better armor. Perhaps you should dig further down? Oh! An abandoned mine shaft full of enemies? What's this treasure chest you found? An enchanted spell-book! Hmmm, it sure would be nice to get around your mine a lot faster. Maybe you should build a mine cart and lay down tracks. Wow! That's a lot more convenient. But it sure stinks having to go out and hunt for food. Maybe you could start a garden, or maybe you should try to breed some wild animals for their meat. The choice is yours. The game doesn't restrict you or require anything out of you. The moment you hit "Start", every choice in Minecraft is up to you.
Most people wouldn't think of Minecraft as "scary" or "beautiful", but it is. The sound design plays a big role in this. Each monster has several unique sounds, so if you're in a cave, you can hear nearby skeletons and zombies (even if they're behind a wall). The "hissss" of a Creeper before it explodes always puts me on edge. The cries of the Endermen always freak me out. There's nothing like digging a tunnel while you hear zombies nearby, wondering if the next block is going to open up to a room full of enemies. The music and ambient sounds are great, too. Chickens cluck. Wolves bark. Rainfall patters. Thunder booms. Even the "thunk thunk" of your pickaxe sounds different between - for example - a block of dirt and a block of coal ore. Every sound has a function.
What is so incredible about Minecraft is that it allows the player to create their own story without any scripted events. So, let me tell the story of two characters, Bob and Eddie. These two stories give an example of the first three days of Minecraft and how different things can be based on your choices. Their stories will give you a far better "review" of the game than I ever could...
Bob's Diary: Day 1
I started out in a snowy forest. Through the tree branches, I could see a bit of water, so I headed for shore. With plenty of trees around, I began to chop them down to acquire some wood. Luckily, I heard some cows mooing nearby. It didn't take long to find them, and it didn't take long to kill them and take their meat. Excellent! I started exploring along the shore for a good place to build a makeshift shelter. Oops! Who put that pit there?!? I fell down quite a bit and lost all but two of my hearts. I had nearly died! Getting my bearings, I decided to look around.
Bob's Diary: Day 2
I looked at the sky from this pit. It's WAY too high to climb. I'll have to dig my way out. But why not look around in the meanwhile? The pit snaked down into the earth. Nearby, I found some coal ore. Good! Now I can make some torches to light my way while I explore. With half a dozen pickaxes at the ready, I began exploring the mine. After not long, I found several veins of coal and iron ore. This was too good to be true! I guess falling down here wasn't so bad, after all.
Bob's Diary: Day 3
I realize I have a problem. I've been able to find stone, coal, and iron in large amounts, but my supply of food and wood is limited to what I had with me when I fell down. I need food to survive, and I need wood to build new pickaxes, swords, and torches. I need to get out of this cave. So, I use the last of my wood to build a few pickaxes. After climbing as high as I can, I begin digging up. Up and up I dig. One of my pickaxes breaks. Then another. I'm down two my last slab of beef and my last pickaxe. Luckily, I'm able to break the surface. Whew! After celebrating for a moment, I realize that this wouldn't be a bad place to build my first house...
Eddie's Diary: Day 1
When I start off, I'm in the middle of the desert. Okay, this isn't good. I need to find food and shelter, and sand isn't very good at putting a roof over my head. I scan the horizon and see a speck of green. The jungle! I head straight there. Along the way, I dodge a few Creepers (since I have no weapons). The sun is setting but I have enough time to reach the jungle and climb the vines to the top of a tree. Enemies will have a tough time seeing me or attacking me up here.
Eddie's Diary: Day 2
I gathered wood through the night, so I'm ready to build a shelter. I figure a tree-house would be fitting. Plenty of mushrooms grow on the jungle floor, so I'm able to make mushroom soup to feed myself. My next goal is to find some stone with which to make better tools. I built my shelter high up in a tree. The only way up is via a ladder leading up a tree trunk. It's not much, and I don't have any torches to light it, so I decide to return to the desert for some exploration.
Eddie's Diary: Day 3
I'm in the desert. In the distance, I see a hill. Is it a hill? It almost looks man-made. It is! It's some sort of temple made of sandstone. It is covered in dried-up vines and adorned with decorations. I decide to explore. Maybe this is my lucky break. Maybe I'll find treasure inside. Thankfully, there are no enemies. The floor has a pattern of orange blocks, with one blue block in the middle. Hmmm, a doorway? I use my pickaxe to cut open the blue block. It's too dark to see below, so I drop down. Treasure! Around me are four treasure chests full of gold and iron. But what's that noise? Uh-oh! Below me is a pressure plate. A trap! I scramble to dig my way out of the pit, but it's too late. A huge explosion rips me to shreds before I can escape with my loot. I'm dead...
Stories like these are what makes Minecraft so fun. The best part is that you can do anything in any order you want. Sometimes, I like to spend all my time building a huge castle. Other times, I like to build an underground railway leading to far-off mining areas. There are times when I start my game, chop a tree, build a boat, and simply sail off into the distance until I see something interesting. You're allowed to do whatever you want. There's plenty of content that I've neglected to mention in detail. There's not just a crafting system but also a potion-brewing system and an enchanting system. You can cultivate plants or domesticate animals. You can get pet wolves. You can build iron golems. You can trade with villagers. You can build a moat around your house and fill it with water (or lava). You can explore abandoned temples and mines (while trying to avoid booby traps). You can build a gate to the Netherworld. It's up to you.
Why a perfect 10? Because after 3 years, I still play Minecraft. Other games have tried to duplicate its success, but Minecraft is still the best "build anything, do anything" game on the market. If you haven't tried it yet, Mojang will soon be launching a retail version of Minecraft, or you can just download it from Mojang's website. The 360 XBLA version doesn't have as many options, but it's still a good way to go if you aren't confident in your PC's power. The smartphone version is Minecraft Lite and mostly focuses on the building aspects of the game, not the survival mode. It's a game that continues to be imitated, but never surpassed.