Minecraft. That’s probably all the introduction this game needs. You do 2 things. Mine to gather resources, and then you craft your resources together to progress further. The limits set by the developers: your imagination.
The first thing that strikes you as soon as you load into a Minecraft world is how seemingly endless the world feels. While lacking in story perhaps, the game is a blank slate. A place where you can create your own, and the way the game doesn’t put any restrictions on you is simply unmatched. The game that got me into programming, but that’s a story for another day.
First up: aesthetics. The game uses, by modern standards, extremely low-quality textures. Simple 16×16 pixel art makes up every voxel (called block) in the world you see. Yet, making such simple textures look good is far from easy. There is a fine balance between making sure that each block looks detailed, but not simplistic. While clearer, sharper lines may look like the texture is more detailed, it also lacks depth, making each block look flatter than their cube shape already make them do. Yet, blurring the textures too much makes them look, well, blurry. This fine balance was, and continues to be struck by Lead Pixel Artist at Mojang, Jasper Boerstra.
Of course, the aesthetics are not the only simple part. The mechanics of this game, are also deceptively simple. You use left click to break blocks or attack monsters, and right click to use or place items. However, that is before you factor in the vast number of items in the game. The game lures you in with simple, intuitive controls that are shared among any first person game. WASD for movement, space for jumping. Yet, as you progress further into the game, you find items like the water bucket, that add so much more depth to the mechanics to the game such as being able to nullify all falling damage by simply timing your right click and placing the water below you at the exact right time. This combination of simple inputs and items that change how your character interacts with the world are perfect for a game that really champions player regency and choice — the ideal sandbox game.
Story is something that Minecraft leaves (mostly) to the player. You are as free as you can be in the world, and all the goals for “completing” the game are optional. In fact, you are even allowed to skip all the progression and simply build yourself a town that has a story you yourself want to tell. In this vein, it is hard to find another game that gives you as much freedom, that lets you rebuild the world itself as you see fit.
Finally, technology. The reason that Minecraft is so popular is not simply because of the other 3 points, but that it fulfils all that without needing incredibly powerful hardware. Optimisations like only rendering faces of voxels that can be seen and the lower quality textures means that the game can be run on extremely old hardware, and can support a huge number of modifications if you have the proper hardware to run them. Each world is also run as a server, even single player ones, meaning that you can easily host a local game for friends when inviting them over in the game itself, without having to learn about how to setup game servers at all.
In Minecraft, the experience of the game really starts with surprise. The different sounds made and items dropped from breaking blocks. The recipes they unlock. The items you can derive from those objects. All these contribute to a sense of wonder, with each new block you find filling you with surprise as you wonder what comes next. The sheer amount of blocks in the game, along with yearly updates, means that even after years of playing the game, each time you boot up the game, there is a chance you discover something new, a different feature that maybe you never interacted with in your countless playthroughs of the game. This feeling of surprise is unmatched, and is incredibly simple to recreate for yourself. Just start a new world, and immerse yourself in an entirely new world, right from the beginning.
Where does the fun come in then? Well, the human brain loves rewards for completing tasks, and I feel like nothing else rewards you more than the sounds in the world you hear when you simply play the game. In Minecraft, each action immediately provides you with a satisfying audio feedback. The satisfying pop as a block breaks. The plop when you pick up an item. The cheerful, musical ding that plays when you pick up a bit of experience from killing a monster. The most genius part of the sounds in the game is that they never really repeat themselves. Each sound played is varied in pitch by a little, letting you feel the results of your actions, and rewarding you for each small action, making a normally tedious task like gathering resources seem like a fun activity.
Curiosity as well is something that the game encourages. Throughout most of its lifespan, the game has not had guides for most of its content. Information such as whether you can break a certain block is actively hidden from the player, forcing them to try different things and inadvertently steering them towards the infinite world as they break different items and put them together in different combinations in the crafting table to see what sticks (haha get it). A simple 3×3 crafting grid that lets you place items however you want lets players figure out how items are made on their own, with recipes for items to be crafted arranged in a manner that makes sense, while also rewarding you for experimentation and curiosity.
Of course, the game is not without its flaws. The problem solving required to “complete” the game by the developers’ standards has never really been made clear to the player. The surprise of finding something new is great, but only when it makes sense for the player to find out about that on their own. When the player is required to stumble into things that are not easily deduced from what we know about the real world that Minecraft is trying to emulate, we cannot force the player to use the same method of trial and error to simply find out recipes that make sense. It is in this aspect that Minecraft is lacking, but steps such as a recipe book that lets you know all the items you can craft with items that you have found before have made steps towards making this less of an issue.