So there’s this man, called ‘Notch’. Unless you're a hardcore PC gamer, you won't have heard of him. In his spare time he made a game, called Minecraft, and released it in a completely unfinished state at a tenner a pop. It's just about mining.
I mean, that's it. You just dig and dig and dig, then use all the crap you've dug up to make more crap, until by the end of it you find yourself building scale replicas of the USS Enterprise or the world, just because you can. Oh, and other people can come into your game, and ruin everything you’ve made. And you have to watch out for the monsters that come out at night. If you can spot them through the pug-ugly graphics, they'll kill you in seconds.
I've made this sound terrible, but it's compelling. So compelling that it's sold half a million copies already, making Notch a multimillionaire. At one point he was making a sale every 6 seconds on it, for about three days, making him $5,000,000 so far. For something he's just made by himself, the equivalent of whittling something in your garden shed, that's ridiculous.
Gamers, especially PC gamers, give the impression of being more than averagely intelligent. It's a self-selecting set - a group of people who have the desire for and capability to buy a top-end computer and keep it tickety-boo - that requires dosh, patience and technical knowledge. However, despite their divergent nerdcore qualities they still manage to share a herd mentality, wheeling around to chase tropes like migrating swans. Perhaps the selection criteria are too rigorous, but there's a very similar, snarky mindset that dominates this faction. Hence, when something hits that spot perfectly, it hits all of them at once - like any virus hitting a shallow gene pool, or a lightning strike hitting a box of lightbulbs, a good meme that appeals to the correct desires will turn all the gamers on at once.
Minecraft, a game not even out of Alpha, has proved to be that game par excellence.
It's the equivalent of a cult film like the Blair Witch Project - but without any advertising or ever being taken on by a big studio.
It is, firstly, ugly. Not ugly in a clunky modern, Playstation way, where the horror comes from the unheimlich jerky movements of crudley animated stick men, but ugly in a traditional, nostalgic way. Nostalgia is the first thing that appeals to the traditional PC Gamer - lumpy 8-bit blocks with a 256 colour palette were, in the childhood of these people thirty years ago, the sine qua non of PC gaming, the most advanced simulations money could buy. So games that recreate this look are simply the most beautiful things to these people.
They also like emergent mechanics. Minecraft doesn’t explain anything; it took me a long time to work out how to make a pick-axe and sword, so I could stop punching trees and animals and instead chop ’em. It took me ages to work out the hideous recipe chain to work out how to make glass, so my cottage could have windows to stare at monsters through. It’s nasty to you - there are many ways to die, and most of them are your own fault. Tunnel deep enough and you’re likely to get drowned, fried by lava, buried by your own rocks, killed by cave beasts, or just starve. I’ve seen beautiful, slowly-constructed loggias full of books built in the sky and burnt down because someone didn’t build a fireplace properly.
It’s also wonderfully individual. Each game is randomly generated, and then sculpted by the skills and preferences of the person playing, meaning every world is unique. Moreover, it doesn’t require a monster PC to run and is having stuff added to it all the time; Notch has a plan apparently, but the amount of random extra free stuff he throws in is astonishing; he’s planning portals to teleport between different players’ worlds, he’s created a bizarre alternate world called the slip that functions a bit like a wormhole, and he’s put the ability to make circuits in there so players can build primitive in-game computers. That’s right, functioning computers inside a simulation on a computer.
Why's this important? Because it's a warning bell for all the big companies that make the hugely expensive games like FIFA and Call of Duty. It's the equivalent of a cult film like the Blair Witch Project - but without any advertising or ever being taken on by a big studio. These big companies like Ubisoft and Activision aren't going to stop making games any time soon, and aren't capable of capitalising on the kind of personal madness that generates something like this or Dwarf Fortress - but independent game-makers now make games in their free time that can compete financially with the companies employing thousands - with next to no overheads. It's unlikely there will be many games that achieve the success of Minecraft or many people who make a living from independent game development - but it’s a brave new world for the best independent, clever and creative people, and for us, as gamers.
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