Thursday, June 23, 2011

Talking About Minecraft #4: Surprise, Surprise

More than any other word, surprise would be the one I'd choose to describe my experience playing Minecraft, and the subsequent impact it has had on my life. Hearing Mojang's (well, Notch's) masterpiece be referred to as Minecrack doesn't bring up a negative image like it might when associated with, say, World Of Warcraft, but rather it sums up exactly how I see it: it is an addiction and while the chances to get my fix may vary, the interest in it and the desire to play never wanes. It has become a part of my life just like an iPad (for example) has for others, and one of the biggest reasons for why I think that is resides with its strong element of surprise.

Think about it: what the game offers -- aside from wonderful freedom, creativity and exploration -- is unique to each of its players. On the creative side, things like buildings and cities are limited only to a player's imagination, and as more and more experiment, the amazing builds that show up on places like YouTube are only going to increase. More interesting, perhaps, is the game itself and how its unique worlds, frequent updates and vast community surprise through their cohesion, and on their own merits, too.

As everyone knows by now, Minecraft's worlds are procedurally generated, essentially meaning that my world is going to be different to yours, as well as everyone else's worlds too. They will be similar, sure, but each beach, mountain and forest will be unique to each individual who plays the game. I'll have a more thorough look at this aspect of Minecraft soon but, for now, I think it is safe to say that one of (perhaps even the) the reasons this approach is so successful is because of its surprise. Exploring my world reveals a large desert, empty grassland after a (natural) forest fire, and a giant cave network that, literally, stretches for miles. Exploring your world might have yielded an interesting, naturally-formed archway, an underwater cavern, or an extremely large, snowy, mountain range. As we continue to explore, who knows what we will find? That's the beauty of Minecraft -- the unknown -- and the end result is constant surprise. Strange rock formations, a deformed tree, an underground lake or a pool of lava -- each are common in all of our worlds but each, also, surprise us through their unique, exclusive-to-our-world, appearance. Minecraft's environment is remarkable, then, and it certainly highlights how beautiful nature can be; perhaps even how much we've lost of Earth's beauty through civilisation. But that, too, can be beautiful, and it can also be surprising.

The community that has formed around Minecraft is amazing, both because of what it can produce and because technically Minecraft is not a full, proper game. Yet. Over 2.5 million sales and counting is astonishing for a game still in Beta and surely sets a precedent not just for Indie games, but for the entire industry, too. It is proof that word of mouth is a powerful thing, but it also proves that player freedom and agency is, arguably, the way of the future -- give people the chance to make their own experience, defined by what they are interested in, and they'll respond positively; respond enthusiastically. Minecraft's community is passionate: their love for the game permeates through their collaboration on the many multiplayer servers, support for incredible builds and designs, and reception to things like Let's Plays on YouTube -- Minecraft is particularly popular for LPs, I think, because each adventure (and indeed, world) is unique -- and fan made stories. There's even songs about the game because its players need to express their appreciation for and dedication to it. Taken together, that's a surprise in itself, but taken individually these various outlets for Minecraft's various players bring surprises each and every week. Everyone knows about the Star Trek Enterprise replica, but did you know about the underwater city Lumina Nocturnale? What about the Minecraft song or any of Bobby Yarsulik's work? Ever heard of Coe's Quest? What about the Ocarina Of Time project? Furthermore, did you know that you can go on a Zelda adventure in Minecraft, complete with dungeons and puzzles and everything? Or perhaps a visit to the LOST island is more your thing? The creativity Minecraft inspires in its players is astounding, and while impressive builds are most common on servers due to the power of collaboration, wherever you look and whatever you find interesting, there's a Minecraft surprise out there waiting for you, created by its wonderful community; by its passionate fans; by you. What amazes you tomorrow will be completely different to what captivates you next week, and it is this regular dose of surprise -- of the unknown (sound familiar?) -- that defines the community and explains why we all love the game so much. It's an experience that's deeply personal yet inherently shared, and that's an accomplishment few other games can achieve; that few can ever hope to deliver. The game is made by its community, then, but it's also made by Notch and Mojang, which leads us to another form of surprise the game regularly delivers.

Minecraft's unfinished, Beta status means that it gets updated regularly -- both to add new features and enhance the game, and as a response to its players who are, essentially, testing it. Every single player can, potentially, decide the game's future, all because they are playing the game how they please and relaying that back to Mojang as they work on the game. It's a relationship that benefits all of us and keeps Minecraft interesting pre(and, presumably, post)release. But it's ultimately Mojang who controls the game and its future, and that fact, too, can produce constant surprise. Do you remember when the Nether was introduced and how different (and freaky) it looked? What about when the wolves were added? Biomes and weather? These updates and many more have changed the game and made it better. Whether it's something as subtle as coloured wool or significant as the forthcoming adventure update, they all play their part in defining and redefining the Minecraft experience. And we all respond to it because we know it'll improve the game and give us (even more) incentive to continue playing. They also keep things interesting, however, because these updates are usually surprises -- things we simply weren't expecting but make sense once they are implemented. The possibilities increase every time something like powered rails or the much anticipated pistons are added, the range and choice in building materials expands with each new block added, and the worlds as a whole become more compelling -- through our ability to inhabit them, and manipulate them -- as new mobs (as just one example) are included. The updates the game receives, then, define the game just as much as its community or unique worlds do, and certainly offers up that element of surprise which makes Minecraft so enticing, so enthralling, so exciting to play. For such a small game its impact is remarkable, so it's great to hear that Mojang will continue to surprise us after the game is launched proper later in the year.

Minecraft isn't perfect but its ability to sustain its vast community and keep things fresh through frequent updates certainly is. Minecraft surprised everyone -- Notch included -- when it exploded as it did, but now that we're all familiar with it I think it is fitting that surprise itself is one of the reasons, perhaps even the main one, for why we will continue to play it. It may not be as awe-inspiring, atmospheric or intense as other games, but it is as enjoyable, and certainly an experience we can rely on when and where we need to. Whether we play it daily or don't return for months, we can always expect a good time when we play, and can trust that when we do, there will always be a surprise waiting for us. You can't get much better than that.

Oh, one more thing: there's one other surprise the game constantly delivers, one that manages to make us hesitate and one that is always daunting to see. I think this hint will explain why it is the biggest and most successful surprise, and why we keep coming back for more. Are you ready? You are? Good: SSSssss...

Friday, June 10, 2011

Evaluating My Driving Style #1: General Traits

It’s all well and good to critique the racing games I play to attempt to understand them but what about my driving style? What is it about my approach, mentality and techniques that makes the genre so enjoyable personally, and enables me to understand what most players probably wouldn’t? In this series of posts I’m going to analyse my driving in an attempt to demonstrate how I do it, why, and to explain why I think and talk about racing games the way I do.


It’s impossible to understand a driving style without first examining the general information about it. This includes things like the general approach to a circuit’s corners, finding racing lines and discovering brake points, and maintaining a level of patience and consistency, particularly when dealing with opponents. My F1 2010 Living The Life series may be focused on the story of racing at the elite level of Motorsport (or pretending to) but it also brings to light, indirectly, how I go about my craft even if I am essentially role-playing in that game.

The first interesting thing -- and something I was aware of already -- is how quickly and consistently I push the limits: of the car, the circuit and my skills. Right from the get-go I am searching for the limits, nonchalant about whether I go too far in doing so and certainly not easing myself into what’s actually possible like other drivers might. This is both a blessing and a curse in the sense that I find the limits quickly and can get on with the task at hand, but do so in a way that is risky and opens up more opportunities to crash, spin off or break the rules of a game, such as cutting a corner. This is a detriment because it could impede on my goals at the time -- setting a fast lap time, passing an opponent, etc. -- and affects my ability to focus on them due to the distractions incidents or mistakes could bring. It is also a massive benefit because it allows me to reach a fast pace and maintain it quickly, rather than build up to it; enables me to develop a rhythm and therefore consistency faster than others, assisting my lap time or ability to attack; and it gives me momentum which, in some instances, allows me to push even further, increasing opportunities and pushing potential higher. This means that I do things like brake late into corners, don’t have a problem with running wide -- yet I do have issues with understeer, something I’ll explore in a future post -- so long as I can still exit a turn quickly, and don’t mind if the car gets a little wheel-spin off a curb or bump. I’m quite aggressive, then, attacking all the time and relentlessly trying to go faster, even if I should be going slower. This makes lap times and the limits of a single lap my area of expertise, then -- which surprises no one -- as well as provides a good, fast balance over longer distances, such as in an endurance race. It’s at a higher risk, however, keeping me at the front or top when things go as planned but severely hurting my progress if I push too far and screw up.

Intriguingly, this added risk and increased margin for error doesn’t affect me mentally out on track because I’m quite a patient driver, too. I am quite happy to follow an opponent lap after lap, waiting for the right opportunity to pass, and if I don’t post a fast enough time while in a time trial, for example, I will keep going until I do. Going around in circles for 100 laps isn’t an issue for me and, in a lot of cases, is something I will do anyway -- regardless of goals -- because I find it fun to do so. While racing I don’t try to win in the first corner or first lap; I’ll follow those ahead of me instead, biding my time to discern their weaknesses so I can then manipulate them by following behind closely, or pushing them into making unnecessary mistakes. I’m also happy to capitalise on an opponent’s passing maneuver, sneaking up the inside (or around the outside) when they have opened up a gap with their own overtake. If I’m being tailgated because my car isn’t quick enough or whatever, then I am capable of making my car incredibly wide and am able to place it where I need to -- through my intricate knowledge of a circuit -- to ensure that nobody gets through, something I can do consistently, lap after lap. I can think of the bigger picture, in other words, which helps me with my goals and alleviates some (but not all) of the problems my aggression on track can expose.

All in all I’m proud of my driving style because it opens doors others wouldn’t be aware of and it is something that has been refined through the many racing games I have played over the years and my experience with them, but it’s not perfect and could use some improvement as I continue to strive for perfection. In the next few posts of this series I will explain what needs work and what doesn’t, beginning with the next post focused on my techniques. Stay tuned.