On the Saturday night before Father’s Day, I called my three kids together and asked them if they’d like to earn an extra five dollars. My wife and I were having a dinner party at our home that evening, and if they agreed to take baths/showers themselves, put on their jammies, brush teeth and settle into bed themselves, they could earn the extra money. Highly motivated, they took the challenge and went to bed without parental involvement. The next morning, after awarding them their well-earned compensation, the older two (ten and eight years old) immediately asked if they could buy the paid version of Minecraft with their money. And from that moment, my eyes have been opened to a magical creation.
What is Minecraft? It is a java-based web computer game the kids had been playing for a few weeks. The free version allows them to play a primitive version of the game in single-player mode. I checked out the paid version and upgraded them each for €15. The game was created by a mysterious and revered Swedish indie game developer named Markus Persson, known as Notch (@notch) and his team of 8 others called Mojang. As my kids showed me the somewhat crudely drawn lego-inspired world of trees, grass, oceans, islands, zombies, spiders, skeletons and the dreaded creepers, I was intrigued. They were mining for ore, collecting supplies, crafting new items with pre-determined recipes and sharing their learnings. There were no spaceships, no lasers, no bullets, no armies, and no blood. In place of the fast-twitch first-person-shooter games dominating console and PC gaming was a construction oriented world set in primitive times that has captured the imagination of about 10 million free users and 3 million paid users worldwide. (Yep, that’s more than $66M in revenue in less than two years.)
Watching them play in parallel on two different computers, I assumed there was a multi-player version. After some googling, I found literally thousands of multiplayer serversrun entirely independently from Mojang. We tried one and found very rich worlds with scores of simultaneous players and lots of rules. Not feeling advanced enough to join these evolved worlds, some googling brought me to a free java version of the server. It was Father’s Day after all and I’d rather be playing with my kids than not, so I launched a local server in our house. It worked like a charm. We all logged in and then the magic really started. We were now playing in the same world, chatting with each other, banding together to mine, build and defend our creations. After a few hours glued to our computers and to each other, it was clear we were going to be playing this for a long time. I was flying to California that night and thought this would be a great way to keep in touch with the kids, so from the car on the way to the airport I spun up a Rackspace linux box (Ubuntu, of course), installed java, and brought the server up. I made some DNS changes to the pakman.com domain name and launched our server more publicly. It would now be possible for us to play together no matter where we all were. Quickly addicted to the tasks of mining and building, I awoke at 4am California time each morning to play with my kids online for an hour before they left for school and I left for meetings. At night I’d check out what they made. They wanted to play Minecraft every waking hour of the day. And so did I.
Fast forward to today. The three of us have played probably more than 200 hours of this game, mostly together. We pray for bad weather on a Saturday to cancel tennis or other outdoor commitments so we can build and explore more of our Minecraft world. My kids have invited many of their friends, almost all of whom were already playing Minecraft, to join our server. We have more than 30 kids who have tried our world and at least 4 kids on at any waking moment of the day. I have consulted other Minecraft server Operators (“Op”, for short) and become a sophisticated Op myself. I upgraded the server to an 8GB quad core box to allow more simultaneous players. I moved the world onto a RAM disk to accelerate the delivery of graphic chunks to the clients. I now wrap our server in the community-created Craft-Bukkit framework to allow me to add and modify server mods without bringing the server down (the kids hate downtime). I added an economy to our world so the kids can buy, sell and trade items in exchange for money. I added a bunch of NPCs (non-player characters) to richen the world experience. I added a Group structure. New players come in as guests with limited abilities so they cannot trash the world (“griefing” in Minecraft parlance) until we trust them and know them. We even added an alternate world called The Creative where kids are encouraged to build elaborate structures. These kids created an entire town complete with a church, fire station, castles, restaurant, airport, farm, houses and a library (okay, I made the library).
A few weeks into the experience, I got a frantic call at work. Some kids had come into the server and were destroying homes and killing players. “Dad, quick, you have to do something. You have to ban these kids from our server!” So, I banned a few of the wrong-doers. It may not surprise you to find out that the few who were banned were already somewhat known as the trouble-makers at school. Now we have griefing-protection tools and anti-cheat technology on the server to help bring a little order to the world. Not too much, but just enough to keep the community healthy. What is happening here? First, it is important to understand that Minecraft is not just a game. Although known as a “sandbox” 3D construction game where users create in a virtual world with basic rules and logic that determine the way the world operates, Minecraft is a true phenomenon. Head over to YouTube to see this first hand. There are more than one million videos uploaded by gamers showing off their creations, tips and ways to mod the game. In this video that made its way around twitter a few weeks ago, a group in the UK created one of the most elaborate looking dams I have ever seen. In another one, a group on a server created a Happy Birthday message to Notch. Most extreme? This block for block replica of the Starship Enterprise or the Arc de Triomphe. The game is actually still in beta, the server is buggy and there is very limited developer support from Mojang. Despite this, there are tens of thousands of developers who have written mods and plugins, hundreds of thousands of skins and texture packs to alter the look of the game, and many community wikis and forums with hundreds of thousands of posts and articles. (It’s not particularly easy to mod the game without a nice API…these devs are disassembling java code and hacking it to make the game work differently.) Unconvinced? Watch this Best of Minecraft 2010 creations video.
Notch and his unbelievably gifted team at Mojang have unlocked an enormous reservoir of creativity largely among kids. I was not too surprised to find my ten year old’s teacher allows the kids to play Minecraft in the classroom to teach construction and encourage creativity. But more than that, I am observing first hand how the players develop ad hoc rules for social interaction in these worlds. This is so much more than a game. This is the inevitable progression from one-dimensional social networks like Facebook to virtual world social networks. If the Mojang folks supported a more robust server architecture and possibly larger game maps, we could see worlds with hundreds of thousands of simultaneous players. I believe Minecraft fulfills the promise Second Life and IMVU have not; these players are not waking up and deciding to go into a virtual world. They are deciding to play and build in Minecraft and the world and social rules follow from that. Minecraft gives its players a reason to come together to interact, much like an outdoor BBQ brings us together to eat and socialize or a dance club brings us together to dance and socialize. Minecraft also presents a number of challenges to traditional video gaming in general. One of the reasons I believe kids love it is because every single block in the game is moveable and alterable. The entire game landscape can be redrawn by the players, one block at a time. This is enormously empowering to a child who lives within a strict set rules about what may and may not be touched in the real world. In Minecraft, you can touch everything. (The blocks do adhere to primitive logical rules like gravity and the effects of states of matter, so it is not a complete free for all.) In addition, the marvel of the game’s success cannot be understated. It has not even been formally released and it has 10M players? And it was developed by a tiny team (relative to big game development) who built and then leveraged a rabid community of their users, many of whom are technical enough to hack and improve the game in all sorts of unimaginable ways. So where can this all go? If the team at Mojang wanted to and thought this way, I think this game could be a platform for global social interactions and easily become the largest virtual world social network. I can see this reaching 100M players. They could more formally support the developer and multi-player server interfaces to really let the game be extended in more reliable ways. They could allow for different world generation algorithms to be used to create more variety in the basics of the map structure (which could unlock a different set of creativity). My friend (XMPP, Telehash and Singly co-founder) Jeremie Miller excitedly hopes for an ability to teleport among various servers without re-starting the game. This would require intra-world permanence of your items and state but would allow people to move from community to community very quickly. As constructed today, each client actually can create and run its own single-player game. Why not allow every client to be a server and host additional players? If they used Telehash, Jeremie points out that “anyone can portal to any other running world on any computer anywhere in the world. Any server you’re on you can always build a “home” teleport to a world on your computer, as well as build portals from yours to all your favorite multi-player servers.” This is an exciting vision. Jeremie also suggests allowing media assets to be delivered from the server to client, currently not permitted. The only way for new characters and scenery to be introduced is to simultaneously mod both client and server. Allowing the server to add new elements to the client would obviate the need for all users to upgrade their clients just to receive new game items. This all being said, I wouldn’t change much. Ecosystems like this are fragile and are very hard to get right. Notch and his crew have gotten it pretty much perfect as it grows organically every day. I truly believe this team is quite genius. The amount of thought that went into getting this balance just right to encourage us to explore and learn on our own and then want to share our learnings is staggering. This week I purchased three tickets for me and my two kids to attend MineCon in Vegas in Novemeber, a community-created convention when the game will be officially released. Wanna come? If you’d like to try out the Pakman Minecraft Server, please send me an email and I will happily send you the address.(Featured image credit bloomua / Shutterstock.com)