What is Minecraft? We explore the global craze that’s got both kids and adults hooked on virtual block-building

For those that don’t keep up with youth culture or the gaming scene, the global craze surrounding Minecraft can seem baffling. What exactly is it that makes this blocky, seemingly basic game such a phenomenon? If you don’t know your Creepers from your Crafters, here’s where we answer the question: what is Minecraft?

For a more in-depth look at Minecraft, check out Barry Collins’ exploration of why millions of people play Minecraft every day. Or, if you want to jump right in, check out PC Pro’s top ten tips for Minecraft beginners.

What is Minecraft? History:

Minecraft is a videogame that’s taken the world by storm and has quickly become a cultural phenomenon. It started out as an indie title developed by a Swedish programmer, Markus ‘Notch’ Persson, as a hobby project while working for King.com, famous for apps like Candy Crush Saga.

Coded in a weekend during the summer of 2009, it was initially released for £8. At the time, the game was an incomplete ‘alpha’ version, meaning that while the core mechanics were in place, it lacked finesse. Over the following year, Notch released weekly updates, garnering more and more sales.

mojang-logo In 2010, he founded Mojang Studios to help update and maintain the increasingly popular game, and in November that year it entered its beta phase. Three months later, Minecraft had sold over one million copies. By November 2011, the full release quadrupled that figure and earned legions of loyal fans in the process.

But what is it that makes Minecraft so popular? It’s easy to see why games like the Call Of Duty and Mario franchises are so succesful, but Minecraft is a little more difficult to pigeonhole.

What is Minecraft? Gameplay:

In a nutshell, Minecraft is digital Lego. The core gameplay involves construction in a procedurally-generated sandbox world. You’re given a blank-slate avatar (commonly known as Steve) and the ability to build anything you want. However, this definition is a little simplistic – to truly understand it, we need to dig deeper.

minecraft-screenshot-10 The central mechanics of the game involve, as you might imagine, mining and crafting. You can mine the environment for various resources, gathering wood, stone, earth, meat and ores of all descriptions. These resources can then be used in various combinations to create items and materials.

These aspects work in concert with each other: you need resources to make equipment, which then allow you to gather more and better resources, which in turn lead to better-quality equipment, and so on. Sturdier tools are also necessary to retrieve the more exotic materials that players can use to deck out their homes, adding extra incentive to persevere.

minecraft-screenshot-2 Upgrading your habitat is also a key feature here, rather than the optional distraction that it is in some games. Night falls swiftly in the blocky world of Minecraft, and the end of each in-game day brings with it various nasties.

If you haven’t found yourself a shelter in the ten minutes between sunrise and sunset, you’ll soon find yourself beset by Minecraft’s various enemy creatures, collectively known as ‘hostile mobs’. While you can forge yourself weapons and armor with which to fend them off, new players will quickly find this tiresome. It’s much more advisable to simply hole up and wait for morning.

minecraft-screenshot-9 If you do decide to try your luck, be careful: death carries a hefty penalty. The ‘hardcore’ difficulty setting features ‘permadeath’, meaning that if you die, the world is deleted and you’re forced to start a new game from scratch.

Even on lower difficulty settings, death results in losing all your inventory items and experience points. Although these can be collected again at the location of your demise, it’s incredibly frustrating to have hours of mining wasted due to incautious night-time excursions.

minecraft-spider If you make it through the night, you’ll need to manage your hunger levels by finding some food. You can kill one of the native animals for meat, or subsist on fruit if you’re of the vegetarian persuasion.

As of later updates, there are also two alternate dimensions in addition to the main overworld. The Nether is a hellish world containing unique crafting materials such as the luminescent Glowstone, infinitely-burning Netherrack and Nether Quartz Ore.

minecraft-nether The End, by contrast, is virtually barren, aside from The Ender Dragon. One of the game’s boss-level monsters, fighting this creature is designed to be punishingly difficult, and is intended to be Minecraft’s final boss.

Aside from tougher enemies like The Ender Dragon and The Wither, the primary hostile mobs consist of spiders, skeletons, an analogue of internet sensation Slenderman, and the iconic Creepers. These unique creatures have a frustrating habit of sneaking up on players and detonating, resulting in death and damage to your meticulously-constructed property.

minecraft-screenshot-8 Of course, some players simply want the freedom to create without having to worry about feeding themselves or fighting off things that go bump in the night. If you just want to devote yourself to building, there’s a creative mode in addition to the game’s main survival mode.

In this mode, players have infinite access to the game’s full catalogue of resources and supplies through the inventory, and take no damage from monsters or the environment. Placement and removal of blocks is instantaneous, and players can fly around the map at will.

minecraft-screenshot-11 A strong multiplayer focus is also built into the game. The lack of any in-game tutorials or guides means that players are forced to collaborate in order to find the best methods for crafting items. Notch believes this contributed heavily to Minecraft’s initial success.

There is a huge industry built around multiplayer Minecraft servers, and as well as simply playing the game alongside others, many have used this capability to undertake truly awe-inspiring feats.

What is Minecraft? Projects:

The beauty of Minecraft is that the limits of what you can make is set only by your imagination. Players have devoted weeks, months or sometimes even years to building immense and sprawling worlds. Groups of players can also unite in their desire to create, using the multiplayer modes to cooperate on vast projects. We’ve scoured the internet and collected the 21 coolest Minecraft projects, some of which are below.

Some organisations have also recognised the power of Minecraft as a tool. In 2013, the Ordnance Survey released a Minecraft map of Britain, featuring the entire country rendered in the game’s blocky format.

An analogous government body in Denmark also took this approach, recreating the whole country on a 1:1 scale. Originally intended for educational purposes and made using over 4,000 billion bricks, it unfortunately didn’t take long before nefarious players figured out a way to begin blowing chunks of it up and planting American flags.

What is Minecraft? Culture:

Minecraft has developed a peculiarly dedicated cult following, to the point where tickets for MineCon 2012 sold out in less than two hours. A fan convention set up by developer Mojang, MineCon is a celebration of all things Minecraft, involving discussion panels related to the game and dedicated gaming areas.

minecon Due the game’s iconic visual style and character design, it has lent itself well to merchandising. Clothes, accessories and toys have all been produced featuring main player character Steve, the well-known Creepers, pickaxes and other Minecraft paraphenalia.
In addition to this, there’s also a high level of community engagement, with fans being inspired to create songs, parodies, and YouTube videos based around the game. Among the most popular formats is the ‘Let’s Play’ video, involving footage of users playing the game, often with commentary.

These videos can be used as tutorials for specific techniques or builds, a platform for showing off particularly impressive creations, or simply viewed for entertainment purposes. One of the most popular and prolific producers of Minecraft Let’s Plays is YouTube user Stampylonghead, whose channel has over four million subscribers and boasts “a new Minecraft video every single day”.

What is Minecraft? Platforms:

Minecraft started out as a small, Java-based PC download, compatible with Windows, Linux and OSX. However, since its initial release, it has been ported to more and more platforms, including handheld Android and iOS devices, the Xbox and PlayStation ranges, and even the miniscule Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry Pi One of the most surprising developments in the Minecraft story was the purchase of Mojang late last year. Microsoft bought the studio in order to obtain the Minecraft property, and eventually completed an all-cash deal totalling $2.5 billion.

Notch once joked that his price for promoting companies was two billion dollars. Although this was a comically huge figure at the time, fans have since highlighted the irony of this.

What is Minecraft? Spinoffs:

As with any successful game, there are numerous copycats apeing the style and aesthetic of Minecraft in order to cash in. While some, such as Terraria, are legitimately good titles in their own right, the Google Play and App stores are both full of poor knock-offs seeking to make a quick buck off the back of Minecraft’s popularity.

minecraft-story-mode-888 Aside from these, Notch’s opus has also inspired many official spin-offs. Telltale Games, the adventure game studio behind the critically-acclaimed Walking Dead series, as well as The Wolf Among Us, Game Of Thrones and Back To The Future, recently announced the development of an adaptation entitled ‘Minecraft: Story Mode’.

Minecraft chiefs are also partnering up with Warner Brothers to release a feature film based on the property. The movie, currently helmed by Shaun Levy, is set to be “large budget”, and might not arrive till 2018. How well a game based entirely around individual freedom and player choice will translate to film is still unknown, but studio bosses appear fairly confident.

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