Minecraft is one of those overnight successes that left gaming pundits scratching their heads. In its simplicity, Minecraft has redefined the standards of a successful game, forcing developers from all genres to take a hard look at where their priorities are in their game design. Well, that’s what they should be doing. What can game developers learn from Minecraft?
Over the past decade, PC and console gaming has gone from simply being fun and challenging to something that closely resembles a Blockbuster movie. Yes, a good storyline is important if your game is centered around telling one. A good plot can create a deeper sense of immersion among players while breathing new life into what could be a repetitive title. Sequel after sequel, some titles rehash the same basic plot almost word for word with the only real changes being the guns used to kill the bad guys. Look, not every game on the shelf needs a plot. This is one of the lessons we can take away from Minecraft’s success.
Another big point comes in terms of graphics. In 2001, we were all easily impressed by a title that came out with some degree of advanced graphics. I remember watching preview developer trailers for Half Life 2, being blown away by the new physics engine and how realistic the characters looked. Even today, I enjoy the graphics level that Half Life 2 brought to the table. Yes, there have been insane improvements since then, but that was really all I needed to get in to the game. Companies spend way too much time concentrating on how good the game looks — so much so that they sacrifice playability. Yes, seeing blades of grass dynamically move as the wind blows is pretty cool during the cut scenes, but those hours of development could have just as easily been spent making more maps for people to play on. (I’m looking at you, Call of Duty.)
Another tip development houses can take from Minecraft is that good games last a while. Yes, we all enjoy the sense of accomplishment we get when we’ve beaten a game. Personally though, I’d rather spend my US$50 on something that lasts more than four to eight hours. Games used to take entire weekends or longer to finish. Today, the average release can be completed from start to finish on a Friday night after work. Spending more money on a DLC that can be completed in even less time isn’t an appealing option to me. Not now, and not ever. Minecraft has longevity in how open it is. You can do pretty much anything you want, and take as much time as you want to do it. While this game style certainly wouldn’t work for a first person shooter, there are some lessons to be learned.
One of the real charms of Minecraft is the asking price. For less than most people spend on bargain bin games years after they’re released, you can purchase and download Minecraft for as long as you want. Paying what amounts to five hours worth of income for the average American worker to get your hands on a copy of a game that lasts about that long is a waste. I know companies spend millions on game development, but when you’re outselling major motion pictures, you can afford to cut the price down a bit. I have yet to see any hard evidence as to why I have to pay US$50-60 every twelve months for the latest Call of Duty game. If your development and distribution houses are bleeding themselves dry to that level, you’re not doing it right. The only other reason I can fathom is pure greed. People eagerly wait in line to pay that much so they can run the same maps and kill the same people with an exploding crossbow instead of a pistol.
One saving grace in the game industry (aside from independent game studios) is Blizzard. This company will delay a title for years just so it can get it right. Diablo III is just now starting to come to light after being announced years ago, and you can pretty much expect Blizzard to stay true to the original game. StarCraft II was a prime example of why taking your time and staying true to the heart of the genre is so important. Where it could have easily crashed and burned, especially among the fanatical South Korean player base (who take StarCraft VERY seriously), it soared and quickly became a favorite among competitive RTS players.
Last, good games take a community to build. Minecraft is unique in that the developer looked towards the community to decide what should, or shouldn’t be in the final product. Even now, as the beta is being completed, additions are being made to make the gaming experience more fun for the community. Even better, these changes come at no extra charge.
As much as I hate sounding like the old guy who preaches about how things were better when he was growing up, I can’t help but to feel extremely frustrated at the direction gaming has gone over the past 10 years. Where’s the challenge? Why are so many games shipped incomplete, only to be completed later on through incredibly overpriced DLC releases?