Find a tree, punch it and collect logs. Turn the logs into wood and sticks. Create a workbench and make a pick. Find some coal and make torches. Mine some stone and make a home. Make a sword and wait for the monsters to come.
If that all made sense, you’ve obviously played Minecraft and know that the above is pretty much an encapsulation of how the game begins – not just on your first playthrough, but every time you create a new world. It’s an introductory experience that’s informative, representative, and actually somewhat intuitive, teaching you almost everything you’ll need to know in about 15 minutes.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and nowhere is this truer than in the world of videogames. In his Keynote Address at GDC 2010, Sid Meier, Director of Creative Development for Firaxis Games, pointed out that “[o]ne of our rules of game design is that the first 15 minutes have to be really compelling, really fun, kind of almost a foreshadowing of all the cool stuff that’s going to happen later in the game.” Brian Fleming, co-founder and producer at Sucker Punch Productions, agrees that it’s crucial to get the player into the game as quickly as possible.
“I think that first 15 minutes is extremely critical for getting players to willingly suspend their disbelief,” said Fleming. “Our approach is to minimize/eliminate/delay everything we possibly can in the startup sequence.” After that, he said, “the game is on. No cut scenes, very little if any narration, just point them in a good direction and let’s go.”
There’s some disagreement on the exact time frame that encapsulates that all-important first impression – for example, independent developer Jay Barnson writes that “[t]he player must be delighted and feel a level of mastery over the game within 5 to 15 minutes.” Depending on your internet search terms, you’ll find everything up to 30 minutes listed as the amount of time a game has to impress you, but 15 minutes seems to be the mean, median and mode of the introductory experience. When it comes to Minecraft a quarter hour seems to be a perfect fit, albeit not at first glance.
Minecraft actually has a 20-minute cycle (10 minute day, 1.5 minute sunset, 7 minute night, and 1.5 minute sunrise), a feature that the game’s creator, Markus “Notch” Persson, had to experiment with to get right.
“I tried a 30-minute day cycle early on, but that ended up being too boring,” says Persson. “Then I tried a 15-minute day cycle, but that was too hectic. The 20-minute cycle has the advantage of the first night coming somewhat soon, and the nights being long enough for mornings to feel rewarding.”
Minecraft‘s introductory experience can seem a bit harsh. You enter the game without any introductions or tutorials, and the random map generator might drop you into the middle of an Eden full of resources, or on a desert island in the middle of the ocean. The first 15 minutes teaches you navigation, mining and crafting, and gives you just enough of a taste of the game’s creative potential to keep you enthralled, but it doesn’t hold your hand.
“I briefly had a spawn house thing with a chest and some tools,” says Persson. “The house felt like it limited the player by encouraging them to spend their first couple of nights there, but it did add a nice sense of security. In the end, I decided in favor of keeping everything player made.”
Indeed, there’s a reason that so many of the Minecraft intro videos are titled “Surviving Your First Night.” After the sun sets, the land is flooded with monsters: spiders and skeleton archers, zombies and the dreaded creepers. If you aren’t prepared by the time they show up, you’re probably not going to survive, and that means on average you’ve got about 15 minutes to get ready. There’s some complicated math involved there that has to do with a 16-block aggro radius, a 24-block spawn exclusion radius, and so on, but the simplest way to demonstrate this is simply to start up a new game and see when the monsters come calling. Generally it’ll be a few minutes after nightfall – right around that all-important 15-minute mark – where you learn the final lesson of the introductory experience, which is how to fight … or die.
Kris18, who maintains the newbie FAQ on the official Minecraft forums, acknowledges that this might be a challenge for some.
“The first day is exciting, but you have to know what you’re doing,” he says. “You’d need someone to explain crafting before you played, or you’ll likely die your first night.”
The Minecraft forums and wiki are both essential resources for playing the game, and to some extent help make the game feel even more “old school” by requiring that you read the instructions (in this case, online) before you start playing. Although the basic controls are well in-line with industry standards (AWSD movement, spacebar to jump, I for inventory, etc.), there’s nothing in the game that mentions mouse buttons. It doesn’t take long to figure out that clicking on blocks causes them to chip away, or that you have to hold the button down to make real progress, but right now there’s nothing in-game to teach that lesson. Persson acknowledges that there might be some room for improvement here, which players might expect to see addressed soon, since the game officially entered Beta on Dec. 20.
“For the sake of completeness, I want the game to at least inform the player how to open their inventory,” he says. “It feels a bit like cheating to have it rely on social media.”
“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.”
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.