Microsoft recently announced their purchase of Mojang for $2.5 billion. Mojang is a Swedish game development company that is famous for one game: Minecraft. Essentially, Microsoft paid $2.5 billion dollars for one indie game. That is an unprecedented accomplishment worth exploring. Today I’m going to discuss what I think Minecraft did that made it special and how it affected me as a game designer.
I like Minecraft. I started playing Minecraft because my friends at Mythic were playing it during its alpha phase. That said, I have met many people who say they don’t like Minecraft. Some say it is too hard, some say they don’t like the graphics, some just say they don’t “get it.” So, the first lesson from Minecraft is that you don’t need to make a game that everyone likes to be fabulously successful.
In many ways, Minecraft breaks a lot of “rules” about what makes a good game. When Minecraft started making headlines a few years ago, we were discussing it around the coffee maker at work one morning and a high ranking designer at EA remarked, “The funny thing about Minecraft is, if you had walked into a board meeting at EA and pitched Minecraft, you would have been fired.”
I’m not sharing this story to slam EA. I expect the opinion would be the same at almost any game company that is controlled by money people instead of creative people. The fact is, when people invest money all they want is to make interest on that money. They aren’t giving you money to indulge your creativity. So, when you pitch your idea, you need to convince them that it will make money. The best way to do that is to show that another company did the same thing and they made a lot of money. This is why big game companies mostly make derivative games: a derivative game is safer to pitch in the board room.
One of the rules Minecraft breaks is that it has very loose objectives; it just kind of turns you loose in a randomly generated world and says, “Make your own fun!” Look at most games and you will see that the player is usually handled throughout the game. Most adventure games are extremely linear; you basically are the main character in someone else’s story. You are unlocking a pre-scripted movie. It’s not even usually a branching story; there is just one winning path and a bunch of ways to fail. Minecraft demonstrates that there is a group of gamers who don’t need that. While that may be a smaller market than those who want to be led by the hand, these gamers are phenomenally underserved and Minecraft is one of the few games that serves them. So, lesson two from Minecraft is: find an underserved market and serve them.
I think about this all the time in the development of Legend of Us RPG. I want LOU to be a story-based game, so it’s a bit different than Minecraft, but as much as I can, I give you the power to shape that story. The most authority over the story in LOU is given to the person who creates a story module. They create the map and the monsters and the narrative. However, because of the broad range of abilities available to the heroes, there are lots of ways to solve a given challenge and achieve an objective which also gives a lot of power to players playing heroes of the story.
I have heard several people, usually and notably people who don’t play video games, criticize the graphics in Minecraft. In fact, the graphics are pretty rudimentary. Everything is essentially made out of blocks about the size of your character’s block head. The textures on these blocks are even blocky. Markus has said that the graphics are the way they are simply because that is how well he could make them. However, as you can see in the picture at the top of the page, when you look out at the horizon the world looks fairly natural, if impressionistic. The hills seem to roll, the river seems to run, etc. I won’t disagree that there are many games with more impressive graphics, but again here is a lesson, a lack of fancy graphics doesn’t mean you can’t have a hit game.
I don’t think people play Minecraft because it has rudimentary graphics, I think they play it because it gives them something that fancier games don’t: control. The more realistic the graphics in a game, the less it yields to you, the player. More than any other game that I know, Minecraft yields to the player’s imagination. In Minecraft, absolutely every piece of the blocky world can be picked up and moved. This has led players to create all kinds of stuff inside the world. I once made a replica of an X-Wing space ship from Star Wars; I have a friend who made a replica of his home. I am currently playing a game where I am building a Swiss Family Robinson style tree house. In games with realistic graphics you will find they don’t yield at all or only yield in very scripted ways. You see a realistic looking tent, but you can’t unstake it and move it. If you bump into it you either stop like it’s made of titanium or you go through it like it isn’t there. So, whether you use a blocky world or a realistic world there are compromises, but Minecraft made the choice that gave the player power.
The aesthetic in LOU is, again, different from Minecraft, but one thing I would like to point out is that I think square tiles are great. Blocks or tiles are not unique to Minecraft; a lot of older games had block tiles, including Mario and Sonic. However, Minecraft proved that people in 2014 would accept that aesthetic. I went with blocks because, first, it simplifies character movement. In a turn based game where you can move a fixed distance each turn it is easier to judge distance if you simply move a number of tiles. Second, it makes it easier for you to build a world where other players can play. It makes it easy to see how much space is needed for those players and for objects in the world.
To sum up, these are the lessons I take from Minecraft. When you are an indie developer, try things that bigger studios wouldn’t. If a big company could throw 300 employees at your design and smoke your efforts, then do something they won’t dare to do. Try to imagine a group of gamers who are not being served or that could be better served and serve them. At a big corporation, if a game makes $30,000 per month it is considered a failure, however, if there are two or three people working on a game making that kind of revenue it is a phenomenal success. If your team is not competitive in certain areas of development (like art), design a game that minimizes the importance of those elements. These lessons don’t guarantee your success, but it worked for Minecraft and it might work for you. As a moment of sobriety: Minecraft’s success is unprecedented and it probably won’t happen at that level to anyone else in the near future. However, there are markets where indie games can be successful and Minecraft proves that.