Minecraft Is About Transcending Minecraft

I first played Minecraft in 2009 back when it was an Infiniminer clone being developed on the Tigsource forums. It was immediately clear to a bunch of people that it was something special but no one could have guessed what the game would become in just a few years. It may be the most popular game of all time. It’s definitely the most popular game among kids right now. Odd, then, that most of the Minecraft experience is about not playing Minecraft.

The Beast

One of my patrons requested a post on factory gameplay in the “Feed the Beast: Resurrection” mod pack. Minecraft modding is big, and FTB is a major contender. “Resurrection” compiles 71 different mods to overhaul pretty much every aspect of the game. A number of the mods interlock to provide a complicated, inter-operative factory system that lets you process and transform materials without the need to manually craft things.

Instead of babysitting furnaces and crafting tables, you load up vessels with supplies and connect them to devices with conduits. You’re tantalized with the prospect of a completely automated world where tracklaying tunnelers gather ores to be ground, smelted, and combined by an automatic crafting table that deposits tools neatly in a chest while the player sits by without moving a finger.

Of course, the mods add complications to make the game interesting. Devices generate waste products or require rare materials as fuel. Recipes and production ratios are tweaked to rebalance gameplay. One particularly acerbic modder, the creator of “GregTech” (no relation), has even modified other mods to make their devices harder to construct.

These mods transform Minecraft from a game to a system for games, from a world to a world-building engine. Quite early in the game’s popularity players stopped pursuing the standard goals and started playing games like Spleef. On multiplayer servers, the cooperation and accumulated resources can mean that the normal threats of the Minecraft world are little more than nuisances.

World Generation

This transition of a work from game to an environment for games has happened before. In fact, it’s tied up in the history of modding. Occasionally you’ll find a DayZ or a Nameless Mod that takes a rarely-modified game and makes something popular or just impressive out of it. The most well-known mods, however, are products of an environment: the spawn of a game transformed.

Certain popular games generate hundreds of mods. Tiny mods, huge sprawling mods, sublimely broken mods and austerely polished mods. There’s rarely more than two or three of these communities active at once, and each community seems to move on to a similar game eventually, leaving behind their best work as a testament to their temporary home.

Team Fortress was born of Quake. Counter-Strike was born of Half-Life. Dota was born of Warcraft III. People played those games so much that they faded into the background: the players were bored of the game while still wanting to inhabit it. These mods, these parasites, build on their hosts while transforming them. It’s quite appropriate that the first true mod is “Aliens TC.” A mod about a creature that grows inside you and kills you as it emerges as something strange and beautiful.

Breaking Blocks

But this pattern fits Minecraft better than those other games. Minecraft is a survival game. Minecraft is an upgrade game. Minecraft is a strip-mining game. Minecraft gives you a world full of mystery and danger and asks you to destroy it.

Your first goal in Minecraft is to build a house to survive the night. With rare exceptions, the simplest house in Minecraft is impervious to all harm. A dirt box with a torch in it is forever immune from the monsters that roam the darkness as long as you stay inside and never play the rest of the game. The coveted diamond armor defuses the danger of creepers. The alternate dimension of the Nether exists both to give a break from the overworld and to make long-distance travel less tedious. As you progress in Minecraft, there’s less and less need for you to play Minecraft.

Minecraft terrifies me.

I don’t like being startled. I don’t like being unable to see in darkness. Caves in Minecraft are dark and contain twists and turns and multiple levels that mean that, at any time, you could be hit by an arrow fired from a far-off skeleton or have a creeper drop from a hole in the ceiling onto your head.

When I play Minecraft it is with extreme care. All my doors are lit and bordered with windows so I’m not surprised by monsters. I mine through solid rock, not caves, in order to avoid danger. I space torches religiously so that I can be sure that I will never encounter the challenges the game wants to give me.

I don’t think I play Minecraft right. But it’s the way it seems to want me to play.

Grinders and Farms

“Feed the Beast: Resurrection” (or, more properly, the factory mods it compiles) courts my Minecraft approach. It lets you skip the inconvenience of the game in pursuit of a world in which you’re never in danger, never hungry, never in darkness. It overhauls the geology and physics of the original game and adds elaborate new systems to handle power and fluids and automation.

By the time you are constructing vacuum freezers and tesseract generators, you have to wonder why this is in Minecraft. The systems and code in place are as complicated as any full game and have little to nothing to do with punching trees or building castles from cobblestone.

The answer is the same as it’s always been: mods are iterative projects, usually done as a hobby. They start as a single lightning rod or alternate costume and grow and change as they are played and enhanced. Some aspect of the original game isn’t to the modder’s liking, so they build a dirt house. Before long, that dirt house has become diamonds.

The arc of Minecraft gameplay serves the purpose of transcending Minecraft. You become safe against all threats before leaving the mortal world behind to slay a dragon that may represent entropy itself and get rewarded with a dialogue on the nature of creativity and spirituality.

Appropriate, then, that these mods recreate Minecraft into something new.

Ossuary Now on Steam

Ossuary is on Steam! It’s been a long road getting there, but a game I wrote and designed is finally on the largest online game store.

So far the game’s been selling well compared to its previous performance, but it’s not been anything lifechanging. I’m very thankful to all the fans and journalists who have helped us get to this point.

If you haven’t played the game, pick it up on Steam! If you have played the game, you should have a Steam key waiting wherever you bought it. Please leave a review on the Steam store page saying what you thought!

Ossuary occupies a complicated head space for me. It was developed during a very difficult couple of years in my personal life, and it’s releasing right when I’m struggling the most to support myself. I hope that in the years to come I can look back on this release fondly, but right now I’m not quite sure how I feel.

Discordianism is a major influence on Ossuary, and I’m reminded of its Parable of the Bitter Tea. The Parable of the Bitter Tea teaches us to accept the nature of things. You can work to improve the world and you can see the flaws in it, but it’s harmful to struggle to change that which is already set in stone. I’ll work to be mindful of how I am right now and move toward the future.

Everyone Should Watch “Alone Together”

Stevonnie Dancing “Alone Together” should be shown in schools. This episode of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe is the best exploration and communication of childhood intimacy and active consent that I’ve ever seen. Katie Mitroff, Hilary Florido, and Rebecca Sugar have crafted a story that does what science fiction does best: explore big concepts through powerful metaphor.

Everyone should watch this episode.

“Alone Together” teaches that intimate relationships are built on trust and mutuality, that intimacy requires active and ongoing mutual consent, and that while intimate acts are important and can be life-changing, they don’t mean the loss of something unrecoverable. It teaches all this through the metaphor of dance, a form of intimacy that is accessible and safe for young people.

I’ll explore the story of this episode, discussing its ending as well as the unexpected character backstory revealed in “Jail Break.”
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Drowning a Deity – Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea Episode 2

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The Bioshock series is about power and history. Power from flesh and history transformed. I’ve explored its biopunk underpinnings before, but I haven’t explored the most recent and oroborosian entry in the series: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 2. It strips the wings from a deity in the service of motivating events in the first game that didn’t need justification, but in the process it introduces some interesting stealth elements in a game not originally built for them.

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Orcs Must Die: Blocking Strategies

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I have a confession: I’m a turtler. And Orcs Must Die 2 doesn’t want me to be.

The game I think of when I read “tower defense” is “Desktop Tower Defense.” It’s my mental archetype of that form, which arose from mods for Starcraft and Warcraft III: a game about preventing waves of invading enemies, or “creeps,” from reaching the exit of a map using stationary towers that attack when the creeps come into range; these towers are built with a budget you earn by killing creeps.

The strategy for “Desktop TD” is primarily about crafting a path for the creeps, one which is circuitous as possible. The towers in “Desktop TD” are solid, so they block creeps, making your towers also serve as your maze. Mastering “Desktop TD,” therefore, requires you to craft a perfect maze, a gleaming labyrinth made from the cheapest towers with just enough addition of special tower types and more powerful, upgraded towers.

Some tower defense games, like “Desktop TD’s” contemporary “Flash Elements TD” have a simpler approach where the creep paths are static and unobstructable. Towers can only be placed in the spaces around the path. I find this approach less interesting, as it allows for less creativity and diversity of play. The most a player can do to affect the process of the creeps, beyond killing them, is by slowing them, often with a tower themed around ice or viscous fluid. Orcs Must Die and the other games I’ll discuss here owe more to the “Desktop TD” style.

The Orcs Must Die series by Robot Entertainment belongs to a subfamily of tower defense games, probably birthed by Sanctum. These tower defense hybrids add a mobile player character with weapons that can supplement the stationary towers. In the case of the Orcs series, the player character is a martial wizard defending a fantasy world against hordes of orcs and other creatures. But unlike Sanctum, its differences go beyond just letting you help your towers with their work.

Continue reading Orcs Must Die: Blocking Strategies

How to Fix D&D 4e Combat

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I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons fourth edition campaign for going on five years, and it feels like we’ve finally figured out how to fix the combat system. D&D 4e is intensely tactical, more so than any other edition, and I find the grid-focused combat quite fun, but it suffers from some severe problems. The biggest of these for us is that combats stretch on too long without enough excitement. Here’s how to solve that.

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Ludus Novus 024: Decision Point

This podcast is supported in part by my Patreon. You can help support it by pledging a monthly donation.

In this episode of the Ludus Novus podcast, I discuss the decisions we make as game designers and developers and how we are responsible for every aspect of the games we make. I touch on polishing, social justice, and emergent aspects of games.
Continue reading Ludus Novus 024: Decision Point

Ludus Novus 023: Searching

In this episode of the Ludus Novus podcast, I discuss the search for the perfect game and the creation of universes.

When I search through my Steam library and I look for that game, that perfect game, the perfect experience that matches the mood that I am in right that moment, I’m playing a game with the entirety of my library: the entirety of games as a medium.

The music for this episode is “Progress” by mystified from the album Fractal Diner 3. It’s available under a ccby2.5 license.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Ossuary is Coming to Steam

Our unsettling dialogue-focused adventure game Ossuary is coming to Steam. The torturous Greenlight process is over, a bit mysteriously, and now we’ve started the work of preparing all the material we’ll need to be released on the largest video game storefront around.

I’m prone to a sort of postpartum depression around game projects. When I release a new game or finish a major milestone, I often have a flare-up of my chronic depression and find it very hard to motivate and care for myself. I’m definitely experiencing that right now: the Greenlight process for Ossuary took so long and occupied enough emotional space in my brain that its resolution leaves me feeling a bit bereft. I’m managing it pretty well, but it seems ironic that a success, or at least a big step of progress, has brought me so low.

The circumstances around the final approval are weird, but that’s a post for another day.