Daily Archives: June 21, 2016

Reflecting on a Year with Minecraft

In which I write a lot of words about a game… again.

As of today I have spent a full year playing Minecraft.  It was on Father’s Day last year that my daughter suggested we play together, a suggestion she has come to regret in that dismissive way that only teens can manage.

“Are you still playing that?” she says with that eye-rolling world weariness that she gives all such parental endeavors.  But I still remember our first little house in the game, and remind her of it.

A house on the hill

A house on the hill

A lot of time has passed in the world since.

According to Raptr I have spent more time playing Minecraft than any other game besides EVE Online and World of Warcraft.  Considering that I have been tracking with Raptr for five and a half years and I have only been playing Minecraft for one year, that says something.  My top five games on Raptr, as a percentage of time tracked, are:

  1. World of Warcraft 24.5%
  2. EVE Online 20%
  3. Minecraft 9%
  4. Rift 8%
  5. EverQuest II 7%

There are reasons that Minecraft has gone up the list so fast.  We’ll get to that.  But needless to say, I have spent some time with the game over the past year.  Bang for the buck, even with server hosting, has been pretty high.

And I have a pile of blog posts that follow what I have done, which I will just list out here as a retrospective, in case you want to catch up with the story so far.  In order from oldest to newest:

  1. Father’s Day Minecraft
  2. Further Exploration in Minecraft
  3. Minecraft and the Importance of Not Falling off of Things
  4. Minecraft and Bringing Light to Dark Places
  5. Sheep Stole My Mining Cart
  6. Minecraft and the Accumulation of Material
  7. Minecraft and the Gift of Fire
  8. Minecraft and the Hosted Life
  9. Paving the Nether
  10. Minecraft and Another Vision in the World
  11. Minecraft and Dungeon Making
  12. Major Minecraft Setback with NetherByte
  13. Don’t Throw Eggs at the Zombie Pigmen
  14. Minecraft – Our World
  15. Minecraft and a New Age of Exploration
  16. The Demise of NetherByte and the Portability of Worlds
  17. Into the Roof of the Nether
  18. So Close to Taming an Ocelot…
  19. The Barad-dûr in Minecraft – First Attempt
  20. Minecraft, Bases, and the Urge to Explore
  21. Minecraft – Under the Sea
  22. Minecraft and the Great Northern Road
  23. Finishing the Great Northern Road
  24. Minecraft and The Guardian Farm
  25. Prismarine Towers and Horse Field Dreams
  26. Minecraft – This is The End
  27. Our Automated Farms in Minecraft
  28. Upgrading to Minecraft 1.9
  29. Just Another Pig in the Wall
  30. The Move to Minecraft Realms
  31. Minecraft Rail Plans
  32. Collecting Tears…
  33. Finding the Northeast Passage in Minecraft
  34. One Hundred Million Copies of Minecraft
  35. Abandoned Mines and Prismarine Spans
  36. Minecraft 1.10 The Frostburn Update
  37. Minecraft and Closing the Rail Loop

So, after a year of this, I figured it was time to reflect on the game, the good bits and the bits that maybe aren’t so good… because I have to have that whole dichotomy thing I insist on bringing with me wherever I go.  Bear with me.

The Good

The game really scratches the whole “wordly” itch, something that used to be the domain of MMORPGs like EverQuest, Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft.  Your Minecraft world is a place to explore and live in.  That has, no doubt, reduced the time I have spent in what I would consider my more traditional domain, fantasy based MMORPGs.

In addition, the whole persistence aspect of the MMO genre is also covered.  We’re still working with the same world my daughter and I started a year ago today.  A work in progress.  It has been hosted at home and on three different hosting services so far, so not only does it persist, it is portable as well.

The multiplayer aspect is a big deal and, again scratches an itch that was otherwise the exclusive domain of the aforementioned MMORPGs.  That I was able to setup a server and have friends along to play in the same world was a big draw, one that keeps me coming back.  Going to see what other people have done in the world is a treat.

Then there is how each of us tackle the world.  Everybody has their own vision and things they like to do, and that makes looking in on everybody else all the more interesting.

And, of course, the variety of hosting options out there make sharing your world easy.

The sandbox nature, the ability to not just explore, but change the world factors in my enjoyment.  I spend most of my time either building things, or collecting resources to build things.  Crafting and farming enter into this as well.

There are still some nice things to find in game, like villages, desert temples, abandoned mines, dungeons, along with the whole nether and end experience that give you something to work with in the sandbox.

Survival mode provides the requisite friction to make building, exploring, and whatever seem… game like maybe?  If I set the world to creative mode and could just create things out of thin air and build whatever I wanted, flying around and placing blocks, I would have likely tired of the whole thing fairly quickly.

Which is not to disparage creative mode in general.  A lot of people like that, my daughter included, and that is great for them.  But for myself, in order to scratch that itch that video games satisfy, the environment has to impose constraints to work against.  In Minecraft survival mode that manifests itself in the day/night cycle, hostile mobs, the need to gather resources and move them to the site where I want to use them, the time it takes to travel places, and even little things like falling damage, food requirements, and the need to work around things in the environment like water and lava.  Certainly the possibility of death brings spice to things, but even things like item wear and inventory management forces you to adapt.

The requirement to collect raw materials is actually one of my favorite bits of the game.  I spend a lot of time mining in Minecraft.  Funny that.  I dig down to level 12, set up a central area with storage and an auto-furnace, and start throwing out shafts every third block.  I put on an audio book or a podcast and I can mine away for hours.  It can be quite relaxing… or exciting if I dig my way into something under ground.

There is a certain joy in the simplicity of the game, from graphics to actions.  I am not a fan of pixelated graphics for their own sake, but Minecraft has hit a happy balance for me.  The simple nature of the basic game “feels” in accord with the graphics.  The game itself is an odd mix of sophistication and doing things in what I might unfairly call “the easy way.”  The game graphically looks like something from a past era of video games, but in ways couldn’t exist outside of the current era.  Our world currently occupies about 1.2GB of drive space and requires fast internet to load and play effectively on the server.

So it looks like it could be from the 80s, but needs resources that have only become generally available… things like high speed internet and cheap 1TB hard drives… much more recently.  You couldn’t do this on an Apple ][ or a 486 Windows 3.1 PC or probably even that 400MHz Pentium II Windows 98 box with a TNT2 card I had around the turn of the century.  However, even with those requirements, its simplicity makes it feel happily retro.

Finally, there is the whole mod situation, which extends from simple client mods like texture packs, to handy additions like a mini-map, to server mods to change the very nature of the game.  There is a wide world of choices out there which I have yet to scratch the surface of at this point.  All I have really used is Minecraft Overviewer, which renders your world into Google Maps format so you can see it all.  I love this.  And it even has a UI now, so you don’t have to learn the command line if you don’t want.

The Downsides

The world in Minecraft can be a repetitive place.  For every interesting bit of scenery there is another plain or forest or desert or ocean that looks very much like the last one I saw.  Exploration can end up being very much a race to find something, anything interesting in a world of sameness.  I feel like I am most likely to get lost because any stretch of forest looks pretty much like any other, causing me to work out my frustration by setting things on fire.  Burn, forest, burn.  I’ll find another just like you over the next hill.

The downside of persistence is that sense of wanting to hang on to your work.  There are times when I want to just start another world, but then I look at all the work done on ours… and I don’t want to redo that.  I don’t even want to play on other worlds because if I want to play Minecraft, I want to spend the time improving our world… for specific definitions of “improving.”

Sharing your world with others is very cool, but actually doing things with other people can be annoying.  It can be surprisingly difficult to do simple things like travel overland together.  The whole first person view thing makes keeping and eye on other people a chore.  And, in this sandbox which is focused so much on building, we do tend to just build away on our own little projects.  I did get significant help on resources for the rail project from both Skronk and Aaron.  But you tend to let people do what they’re doing because it is their project.

Sharing is also… complicated.  Now and again I want more people to join in on what we have, but who can I really trust?  Who will be compatible and who will just come in and just blow up our stuff.  The joys of a destructible world!  Doubly so since a couple of us have our kids on the server now and again, so there are minors to protect, which lets out almost anybody who plays EVE Online as a possibility, because we’re all horrible people.

The weight of the sandbox nature of the game can be a burden.  When you have a project, all systems are go.  But when you have finished it… well, you have to come up with another project or else just potter around with what you have already setup.  And, frankly, pottering around mostly involves waiting; waiting for crops to grow, waiting for villagers to get something interesting up for trade, waiting for your automated production marvel to make the stuff it makes, or just waiting for the sun to come back up again.

I feel a bit of emptiness in some of my projects.  When my daughter and I first started, she built us a shelter that was just what we needed and no more.  It was pretty cramped.  Then she built the house we moved to, which was nice.  It had a few rooms, but there was something going in on each room.  Then I went and built a castle.  I had a vision of many rooms, each with a function.

However, as I completed the castle, I noticed that I really only used the room that I had setup initially to shelter in over night, plus some empty space around it where I put in chests for storage and built an auto furnace.  That and the automated farm on the roof are about all that the castle has in it.  The problem is that there is nothing to “do” in the castle.  I don’t need any rooms outside of the one where I sleep.  Likewise, in the area I refer to as The Kremlin, I have built several towers, a stable, and a large two story building, all of which are starkly empty inside because I still just sleep at night in the little room I dug in the side of the mountain when I first arrived.

Enaldi and Skronk have built the most amazing Italian town in our world.  Great buildings decorated inside and out.  They set it up with NPC villagers so that they go about their business around the town square.   It is the most wonderfully alive place in our world.  I love it.  But, in the end, there still isn’t anything to “do,” it is just decorative.  Enaldi and Skronk, to my knowledge, don’t log in to “play” in their creation.  They just add more to it.  Just building more and more can feel a little Sarah Winchester now and again.  (I live not far from her house.)

And, without that sense of function, I have stopped putting up large buildings for the most part.  Bridges I like, because they have a function.  But putting up a castle or the like doesn’t appeal to me now because they just end up feeling empty and lonely.  So I work out my anger by marring the landscape with giant public works projects.  I have seriously considered making the rail project double tracked.  Or maybe a six lane highway right through the middle of the continent.

Meanwhile, the friction which keeps the world interesting can also make it annoying at times.  The day/night cycle especially.   If you are on alone, you just hit a bed when the sun goes down and then the day begins anew.  But if other people are on and in the middle of something… nobody cares about day or night deep in a mine, nor when they are AFK waiting for their automated device to crank out some supplied… you have to coordinate or interrupt them or just deal with the night side of the cycle.  And, in the way of things, the day always feels too short because you’re getting things done, while the night feels like it goes on forever because you’re stuck inside or you’re fighting zombies, skeletons, and the seemingly endless supply of creepers the game loves to spawn.

I am unhappy with the behavior of water in the game.  Lava too, but I don’t want to create rivers of lava in the world.  Okay, that’s a lie, I would totally create rivers of lava as well if I could.  But working with water to create anything like a river just involves too many runs with a bucket.  I could just turn on creative mode and do that, but then there goes the magic of friction in the world.  And I want water to flow.  I want to drain lakes and flood mines.  Instead water just sits there or, at best, runs off for a few blocks, gets tired, and gives up.  It does make very nice waterfalls at times though.  I will give it that.

I have also had some poor experiences with hosting services.  There are so many to choose from and there is no real way to tell how things are going to work out.  Who knew NetherByte would fold up shop suddenly?  I suspect that our problems with MC Pro Hosting were related to them co-hosting us on an over taxed machine, so performance went to hell during peak hours.  I understand that problem, but for what we were paying I expected more.  Minecraft Realms has been good, and it is probably the simplest solution, certainly it is the one most integrated into the product, and the price is right, but you give up a lot of control options there.  So I remain vaguely dissatisfied on that front.

Finally, I have, to this point, spent exactly zero time with mods.  Part of that is because in my long history with video games I have developed a love/hate relationship with player developed mods and extensions to games.  I like them, but I have been burned enough times that I also try to keep them to a minimum.  Part of it is a desire not to screw up our world based on experiences related to the former.  Part of it is that it is nice just to be working with the simplest possible set of rules.  And, finally, since we now host on Minecraft Realms, we cannot have any server mods, and even if we could, they would all be broken right now because Realms is always running the latest release version.  There are still mods out there that haven’t been brought up to version 1.8 and we’re now at version 1.10.

Also, totally off the farm here, but I hate when versions don’t get zero padded and the plan is to change the digit count.  For me the sequence should be either this:

1.7, 1.8, 1.9, 2.0

or

1.07. 1.08, 1.09, 1.10

Where I grew up, 1.1 = 1.10.  But that might just be me.  I still like monospace fonts too.

Summary

If you are reading this and just love Minecraft beyond life itself, don’t take my comments too much to heart.  The day I cannot find something to complain about is probably the day I show up dead.

For me, understanding what I do not like about a game, and why, is as important as understanding what I do like.  No, I cannot just play the game.  It just isn’t in me.  And, I will add a the long standing policy here at TAGN is that I almost never bother to write about games I simply do not like, and certainly not at depth.  This is just a bit of my collected thoughts after a year of playing the game.

I logged in and played yesterday, I will likely log in and play again tomorrow or the next day.