Can You Dig It?

Can You Dig It?
15 Minutes of Minecraft

Michael Fiegel | 11 Jan 2011 11:55
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"What I like about Minecraft's opening gameplay is the changing-the-world aspect," explains David "CodeWarrior" Vierra, creator of MCEdit, the first 3D Minecraft editor. "Very few games give you the chance to completely rearrange the land under your feet. In Minecraft, that's the basic thing you do as you're playing the game, and you usually figure out how to do this within the first minute."

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Much of the reason these lessons come so intuitively is that the game is subtly pushing you along in not-so-obvious ways from the very start. New characters always spawn on sand, making it easy to experiment with breaking and placing blocks. Sand is usually near water, making it easy to quickly learn about swimming (and, alas, drowning). Water is usually around sea level, forcing you to learn how to move and jump before you can make it up the hill towards the trees and stone you'll need to survive. New characters also always start off facing east, with the sun immediately moving up to remind you that the clock is ticking.

"I love seeing how people construct their opening sequences to cleverly get players over the hurdles necessary to play the game," says Fleming. He gave the example of Sucker Punch's first Sly Cooper game, wherein the first few moves drop players inside a depression, immediately and intuitively teaching them how to move and jump. "You're learning our game, just the same way you learned how to do almost everything when you were a kid ... by simply doing it."

Another reason the introductory Minecraft experience feels so intuitive might be that it aligns with certain elements of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological theory that arranges human needs in order of precedence. You must deal with Safety concerns (finding resources, building shelter) before you can look towards matters of Esteem (mastering skills, achieving competence) or issues of Self-Actualization (such as the creative act of building scale models of the Starship Enterprise). If you fall off a cliff, the Physiological need to find food (to heal yourself) takes precedence over all the rest. Admittedly, Maslow's concept of Love and Belonging doesn't seem to fit Minecraft, although one could argue that all those farm animals provide companionship as well as raw materials.

In any case, the concept of fulfilling basic needs is intrinsic to Minecraft's gameplay. Succeed in accomplishing a few all-important tasks in the first 15 minutes, and you survive to live through the next 5 to see the sun rise. Fail, and you suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the undead. Either way, you've learned everything you need to know about the game. Except, perhaps, the big question: Exactly what is your character doing in this strange world? Persson acknowledges that he's working on an answer to that one right now.

"I'm going to try to keep it as basic and plain as possible," he says. "The goal is to provide some sense of purpose or direction to new players, and a long term challenging goal to older players. It won't be about the player having suffered amnesia unless we really can't think of anything else."

Michael Fiegel is a freelance writer and game designer, and the creator of Ninja Burger and HELLAS: Worlds of Sun and Stone. He has played the first 15 minutes of Minecraft more times than he can count. He can count pretty high.

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