• 26Oct

    Lately, I’ve been thinking about Minecraft, a 3D exploring/digging/building game that has been receiving a lot of attention lately. I first started playing Minecraft about a month ago, and it was clear after two days that it would consume my every waking hour if I let it. I put some self-imposed limits on how much I could play it, with modest success. After 10 days, a painful-yet-fortuitous glitch deleted my world, and I used the opportunity to try to pry myself away from the game.

    Yet, even though I haven’t played it in over three weeks, I still feel an urge to play it nearly every day. There is something about its creative, free-form play that is incredibly attractive, even addictive. Meanwhile, I have my own OpenSim region where I can create and do anything I want, yet it sits neglected for lack of time, interest, or motivation.

    Why this stark difference? Why is Minecraft, the more limited and less creative of the two, the more appealing? And what, if anything, can I do to harness the creative drive that Minecraft inspires, and channel it into my OpenSim region and other projects?

    Minecraft is entirely open-ended, with no set objectives, no experience points or character levels, no quests or story or ending. Just a world — your own world, infinite and unique — waiting to be shaped by your hand and imagination. In that respect, it’s very much like Second Life / OpenSim (SL/OS). Both start as pristine worlds, with no inherent purpose or goals, but which the players progressively transform into something unique and personal.

    Of the two platforms, SL/OS undeniably has a vastly greater range of creative possibilities. Yet despite Minecraft’s limited toolset, it has inspired amazing feats of creativity: elaborate bases built into cliffsides, vast minecart railways, replicas of the USS Enterprise, even working simulations of computer microprocessors.

    On the surface, Minecraft is quite simple, and not the sort of thing you’d expect to yield such creativity. You’re dropped empty-handed into a vast, randomly generated world of pixelated blocks of dirt and stone, trees, animals, and monsters. The monsters come out when it’s dark, so you need to build some form of shelter before nightfall. You accomplish that by digging up the dirt and stone blocks to make a cave, or stack the blocks up to make walls for a house or fortress. You can cut (or punch!) down trees, then use the wood to make various kinds of tools, which let you dig more efficiently, mine for coal and metals and gems, and craft weapons to defend yourself against the monsters.

    From there, the game goes deeper, with dozens of items and objects you can create: doors, ladders, furnaces, minecarts, dynamite, even simple pseudo-eletrical circuits that can control doors and railways. As the game progresses and you gather more kinds of materials, the number of possible items you can create grows. But you are still limited to the items the game creator thought of. You can’t add a swishy cat tail to your avatar, or build a working airplane of your own design, or any of the countless other things that SL/OS lets you do.

    So why is Minecraft so inspiring, so addictive, so fun? Why do I find it so much more compelling to build a create a castle in Minecraft, when I could create the same or better castle in SL/OS?

    I would say that it’s precisely because of its constraints and limitations that Minecraft is more engaging and compelling. Too much creative freedom is daunting, and can actually stifle creativity. Minecraft strikes an appealing balance between constraint and freedom, guiding your creativity without forcing anything.

    • Minecraft suggests a motivating purpose, but lets you ignore it. The danger of the monsters coming out at night gives you a reason to create a shelter. That initial purpose naturally suggests further courses of action: gather materials, expand your base, and make it really grand and elaborate. The game never forces you to do anything, but always provides a selection of constructive activities to choose from.

      SL/OS, on the other hand, provides no motivation or purpose. It is a blank canvas upon which you can paint anything you like, in any way you want, with near-limitless possibilities. But you have to bring the motivation, the purpose, and the focus to decide what to create.

    • Minecraft provides a rich, interesting world as a starting point. When you first play Minecraft, the game generates a random landscape, just for you, complete with scenic mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes, trees and beaches. This constrains your freedom somewhat, but also gives you ideas. You may stumble upon a cool mountain formation, and think, “That’s where I’ll build my fortress!” Or, you may find a series of caverns that descend deep into the earth, filled with valuable materials and dangerous monsters, and think, “I’ll explore these caverns, and build a minecart railway to carry the minerals back home!”

      SL/OS does not provide any such a starting point. Instead, you get a flat plain, a featureless island, or (at best) a prefab terrain constructed by someone else. There are no naturally-occurring landmarks or points of interest, and the way the world is laid out in a grid of individual square regions discourages free-flowing, natural terrain. Again, you have to bring your own inspiration.

    • Minecraft offers challenges and obstacles to overcome. It takes effort to gather the materials necessary to build anything. You have to dig up each block of dirt and mine every piece of metal, all while avoiding monsters and lava flows. Each material and item looks and behaves in a certain way and has its own limitations, which can inspire creative solutions. If you’re building on a high tower or cliffside, you risk falling and dying, thus dropping all your hard-earned materials onto the ground.

      These kinds of gameplay elements add a sense of danger and excitement to the creative process, and overcoming challenges increases the sense of accomplishment when you finish something. Building in SL/OS is comparatively safe and straightforward. Prims are a free and unlimited resource, not a valuable commodity that takes effort to collect. Most of the obstacles are due to technical issues or lack of training/skill, both of which tend to cause frustration, not excitement.

    • Minecraft promotes spontaneous, continuous creation. You can just grab a tool and start digging, laying out blocks, or crafting items. Of course, you can do some planning if you feel like it, and it’s surely necessary for the really complex builds like the micoprocessor simulation I mentioned earlier. But in general, you just build as you go, drawing inspiration from your surroundings, and see where your imagination takes you.

      This is true to some extent with SL/OS as well, but most of the “serious” content creation these days is done outside of the world. Skins, clothes, textures, animations, sounds, sculpties, and meshes are all created in other programs like Photoshop and Maya (or GIMP and Blender), then imported into the world. This creates a joy-dampering divide between the act of creation, and the pleasure of seeing it come to life.

    • Minecraft is pure play. The things you create are just for fun, and have no impact or consequences beyond the game (except perhaps the pride of showing off via YouTube videos). As far as I am aware, nobody is trying to monetize Minecraft by selling their creations or their creative services. Someone might think to do so — but that would, I suspect, ruin most of the fun, and turn the play into work.

      Meanwhile, SL/OS is increasingly saturated with people trying to make a buck. In the same way, I’ve observed the individual lives of many SL Residents (including myself) gradually shift from self-indulgent play and entertainment, to more serious business and moneymaking. Making money isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it does tend to take away the joy of creating things purely for pleasure.

    So, if Minecraft has these engaging and addictive qualities, should SL/OS try to emulate them? Not necessarily. It’s important to remember that SL/OS is not a game. It sits halfway between a tool like Blender, and a game like Minecraft. It is both a content creation tool, and a content delivery and consumption platform.

    Some aspects of Minecraft would simply be inappropriate. SL/OS would not be improved by requiring the user to cut down trees to make plywood cubes, for example. Nor would anyone find it entertaining to lose years worth of inventory because they fell off a tall building or were mauled by a zombie while AFK.

    But, other aspects of Minecraft can be used to make the creative process more engaging, both in SL/OS and in the “real world”.

    • Nudge yourself towards a motivating purpose, but don’t cling to it. Think about what you’re creating, and why (even if the reason is merely “it would be totally awesome”). Keep a selection of possible future courses of action in mind, and let your gut choose which to pursue. Allow your motivations and feelings to change, as they naturally will, but always be aware of them.
    • Use a chaotic or inspirational starting point. Look for serendipitous inspiration in the shapes of coffee stains, ink splatters, the lines of a crinkled-up piece of paper, or other random shapes. Use a random terrain generator like L3DT as a starting point for designing sims. Or, get some modelling clay and just mush it around chaotically for a while.
    • Set challenges and constraints for yourself. Use half as many prims as you thought were necessary. Pick an unconventional color or style, and make it work. Build it in a way that would be totally impossible in the real world. Make up rules about which shapes or colors can be next to each other.
    • Start with media that promote spontaneous creation. Build with prims first, instead of jumping straight to sculpties or meshes. Work with malleable physical media like charcoal or clay. Make quick, throw-away sketches, mockups, or prototypes.
    • Create for yourself, for fun, for the pure joy of creation. Be selfish. Indulge your creativity. Work on fun, cool things that stir up your imagination. Make a crazy hat to wear, or a secret fort where you can hide out with your friends. Be a kid. Play.

    With any luck, learning these lessons from Minecraft will allow me to focus my creative urges on more meaningful and important things.

    Posted by Jacek Antonelli @ 11:20 am

12 Responses

  • The Minecraft perspective Says:

    [...] Jacek Antonelli’s just said all of that, and probably better than I could have. Go and check that out and have a think about how simple, [...]

  • Botgirl Questi Says:

    I’ve found that using a relatively limited platform can be really inspiring. For me, it’s the iPhone/iPad rather than Minecraft. For some reason, I find myself constantly turning from Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, etc. on a MacBook Pro hooked up to a 30″ monitor and instead end up joyously churning out creative works on a 4″ or 10″ device with a fraction of the speed, memory and storage. As a matter of fact, although I didn’t call them out before now, the last nine videos or images that I created for blog posts were done on an iPhone or iPad.

  • Maria Korolov Says:

    Jacek –

    Great article, and some really insightful comments here.

    I think something similar happened with Websites. At first, you had HTML, you could do anything you want. Then some people started making money, and it put pressure on everyone to think about monetizing their sites as well.

    Today, most people (I think) have a pretty clear idea of why they’re blogging — to market their companies, to promote their own services, to sell ads — or whether they’re blogging simply to inform, entertain, and express themselves.

    Another similarity is that the early webpages, built from scratch in HTML, had pretty much unlimited possibilities.

    Today, most folks use content management systems like Blogger or WordPress. These systems put significant constraints on what you can put on a webpage. The trade off is that they’re easy and quick, and let people focus on the content, rather than on the design.

    I suspect that we will soon have content management systems for OpenSim, Second Life, and other compatible worlds that will make virtual environments more usable, more user-friendly, and, at the same time, more navigable and accessible to the public.

    And of course, just as you can still write HTML sites if you want, or add HTML snippets to existing blog templates, you’ll still be able to build entire environments — or pieces of them — by hand.

    – Maria Korolov
    Editor, Hypergrid Business

  • Kate Says:

    You make some really interesting points. Generating landscapes within Opensim feels really tedious at the moment, a ‘create random landscape’ button would be fantastic. I miss the inspiration and input of other creators as well, and the lack of a marketplace means I can’t just ‘buy a house’ to adapt, or stick a few waves in the ocean and build around the view.
    I make machinima film, and this usually provides the motivation to create, but to make all the content for a film, and make the film is too much.
    I think we need ‘building blocks’ to work with and adapt.

  • Peter Stindberg Says:

    I think there is more to it. Minecraft gives you a HUGE landscape to play with, where in SL you have to pay dearly for every square meter you want to own. And while SL has the air to make yourself at home, Minecraft offers the shell of the earth itself. It gives DEPTH wich I often missed in SL.

  • EricAtRandom Says:

    I think always having a next goal makes Minecraft addictive. Oddly enough, I went the exact opposite way with SL. I joined SL because I was learning 3D modeling and wanted to exploit my skills. But as I built things, they attracted attention. And the attention turned into friendships, and the friendships eventually doomed my building. But the social aspect soon became the heart of my SL addiction.

    With no social distractions, Minecraft remains a puzzle to figure out — with rewards for each level of build you accomplish. So I can see why that aspect would remain a strong and focused addiction.

  • Anna Says:

    Hmm what you were saying about the motivating factor interested me a lot. That creatures coming out at night gave you a kind of press to work towards ‘something’

    I’ve been thinking this for a while, that although I’m sure some people would always want thier sim to be a controlled enviroment that SL is actually held back from popularisation by it’s lack of ability to easily create a ‘game’ type enviroment. This coupled with no facility for precaching a sim has left it without interest to the mmorpg and fps crowd who could actually be not so difficultly be accomedated in SL.

    People have attempted to solve this by use of the in game scripting language and prim aggressors, or hud combat. But these systems are unreliable and uniniform, which although gives them great customisability can leave them difficult to use and uninspiring to work with.

    This is a major reason why I feel recent ‘upgraded’ systems such as blue mars are severaly lacking, they adress some of the issues but not enough of them and so take away freedoms without giving a good reason as to why.

    If something similar to SL were to come about that had more powerfull features for sim owners, and the possibility of downloading a sim with only ‘new’ items being loaded on the fly. (Similar to how people used to work on UO so called player shards, where items would be baked into the world map but still temporary items could be added after, not a great example I think but might explain it :3)
    Powerfull features including more built in tools for game creation, native NPC creation, native weapon/damage systems, which preferably would be modular and preferably also compatible with existing script systems but would run from the client as supposed to an item attached to a remote character. (Or at least that’s how I envison it, I’m not a scripter though I have dabbled and aware of the complexity.)

    I know nothing like that would be easy or solve all the problems, but I think that such a change maybe neccesary to really popularise the virtual realm without removing too much of it’s freedom. It would make them more flexibility as an entertainment medium, although we all appriciate that social worlds arent strictly speaking MMORPGS or even games at all, giving sim owners the ability to put them in… Well I think it’s essential – even if I have no interest in being on such sims myself (a happy text roleplayer :3)

  • harrison partch Says:

    It is the world model and renderer that make minecraft such an advance over sl/sim in some ways. It is interesting to speculate about an eventual hybrid that combines the best features of both. Will this hybrid use a polygon renderer, or will it be realtime traced? I’m working on this question.

  • Violet Says:

    Oh, dear, I wish I hadn’t read about the existence of Minecraft here, because sooner or later I’m going to go play it, and then I know I’ll be addicted right away.
    Yes, it really does sound like it has some aspects I’ve felt SL/OS is missing…although changing SL/OS in those ways in would destroy sims that aren’t made to be used that way.

    I think if I were ever a multimillionaire, I’d love to get together a company to create something that attempts to combine the most fascinating aspects of each platform…just to see if it would work. :)

  • 8Ball Helix Says:

    Hi Jacek,

    You know I find it amazing that the answer to your question “why is minecraft so compelling?” was answered in the one sentence description of minecraft then in your analysis you MISSED IT COMPLETELY.

    I’ll answer for you, however:
    It’s the MONSTERS and the fact that it’s a GAME where you’re competing against monsters!

    Opensim and SL have neither monsters nor really permit competition against monsters. Although you can play games in SL or opensim there’s a hard requirement to attract other human beings who need to *pretend* to be something in order for the game to work. The best they have is a doom-style setup where you shoot each other, but *no monsters*.
    In minecraft, it’s not only the monsters mind you, but in combination with the other ingredients it definitely makes the *game* engaging. Consider how much better the first person shooters would be in SL or Opensim if there were *also* artificially intelligent monsters or spaceships or robots or whatever attacking you in combination with the possibility of humans. Consider how engaging it would be if you could, e.g. build yourself a hidey hole that the monsters couldn’t get into. That could easily be implemented in Opensim or SL IF THERE WERE MONSTERS. But there aren’t.

    In OpenSim and SL for those of us who are roleplayers (other than just those who want to engage in pixelsex role-playing) the biggest complaint is that there are NO NPCs.

    It’s my opinion (and that of the several people corresponding with me and trying to get NPCs implemented in Opensim) that this is a KEY piece of functionality missing from opensim. Who wants to come to an empty region? Nobody. It doesn’t matter how interesting it is. It’s boring. Likewise, what’s the point of building a beautiful sim for only *you* to look at.

    There are no viable NPCs neither in OpenSim nor in SL and that area has been completely neglected because the devs are focussed on other areas. And they’re quite right. From their position, opensim is not a *game* it’s an artificial world. And they’re not wrong, but there are significant numbers of us who WANT to play games in Opensim or SL and cannot.

    The opensim devs have included a module which (partly) works in the regions section but it only works in 0.6.9 and it breaks in 0.7. That’s telling that though there is demand for NPCs (from myself and others like me) the interest of the core devs is in other areas (notably collaboration etc).

    But my position is that the most likely mass market users of something like Opensim or SL are *not* those who would like to collaborate online – they have facebook for that – they are those more likely to want to play games. And frankly, as a game SL and Opensim SUCK. And they suck precisely because there are no monsters.

    There are other implementations of server side “bots” but it seems to be that the main opensim devs have a different concept of what they would like to use “bots” for. (Mainly load testing it seems).

    Gamers like myself would like to see Halo-like NPCs which operate some kind of gaming-AI so they can exhibit state like “waiting”, “exploring”, “patrolling”, “hunting”, “chasing”, “fleeing”, “attacking” and whatever rather than just merely load-testing.

    That said to conlcude this response: this whole response is not a whine or a bitch, it’s an obversation of my opinion on why minecraft is more *engaging* than Opensim or SL for the vast majority of users and what needs to be done to attract those other kinds of users to the platform. The beauty of SL and opensim is that you can *build stuff* but that by *itself* is not enough to attract users. I believe that the combination of NPCs and being able to build stuff would make opensim the killer app and that without it, it’s doomed.

    I only need to point to the number of users of WoW or LOTR or Call of Duty online to make my case. I believe if we had valid server side NPCs then SL/Opensim would become the dominant gaming platform.
    Those who see Opensim/SL as purely virtual worlds are welcome to their opinions, but if they really want to see the platform succeed, they’re going to have to attract more people and virtual worlds, sorry to say just aren’t that attractive for the regular user. GAMES ARE!

    Anyways: myself and a couple of others are blindly hacking the Opensim code to see if we can get the NPCs to walk. If we can do that, then we will release the code opensource. I already talked to Rev Smythe one time on LBSA plaza and my limited read is that his core interests seemed to lie in other areas (like almost every other OS dev I have talked to) and thus it’s down to me and a couple of others. Unfortunately, we’re not as skilled coders as any of you guys so it might take some time, and hopefully it’s enough, but I suspect if we don’t get it going, Opensim and SL will be ultimately sidelined by platforms that *do* include NPC gaming as *well* as the 3D immersive building and cooperative aspects of Opensim and SL.

  • Nan Says:

    @Kate re:random terrain generator. Try L3DT as Jacek mentioned. It will generate random terrains or you can customize your own. I’ve used it with great success and had fun with it on all of my regions.

  • 8Ball Helix Says:

    So we got the NPC to move via an ugly, ugly hack but it worked.

    So some kind of minecraft with the vastly superior building of opensim might not be out of the realm of possibilities.

    Imagine *having to* build yourself some shelter on your own region to hide yourself from the zombies coming out when it got dark.